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Agriculture Warning signs over the planned Monsanto-Bayer merger

Corporate monopolies will accelerate the globalisation of bad food, poor health and environmental catastrophe, says COLIN TODHUNTER

IF the proposed Monsanto-Bayer merger goes through, the new company would control more than 25 per cent of the global supply of commercial seeds and pesticides. 

It marks a trend towards consolidation in the industry with Dow and DuPont having merged and Swiss seed/pesticide giant Syngenta merging with ChemChina. 

The mergers would mean that three companies would dominate the commercial agricultural seeds and chemicals sector.

For all the rhetoric that we often hear about “the market” and large corporations offering choice to farmers and consumers, the evidence is restriction of choice and the squeezing out of competitors. 

Over the years, for instance, Monsanto has bought up dozens of competitors to become the largest supplier of genetically engineered seeds, with seed prices having risen dramatically.

Consolidation and monopoly in any sector should be of concern to everyone. 

But the fact that the large agribusiness conglomerates specialise in a globalised, industrial-scale, chemical-intensive model of farming should have us very concerned. 

Farmers are increasingly reliant on patented corporate seeds, whether non-GM hybrid seeds or GM and the chemical inputs designed to be used with them. Monsanto seed traits are now in 80 per cent of corn and more than 90 per cent of soybeans grown in the US.

By its very nature, the economic model that corporate agriculture is attached to demands expansion, market capture and profit growth. 

It might bring certain benefits to those farmers who have remained in agriculture, if not for the 330 farmers in the US who leave their land every week (according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service).

But in the US, “success” in agriculture largely depends taxpayer handouts to oil the wheels of a particular system of agriculture designed to maintain corporate agribusiness profit margins. 

And any “success” fails to factor in all the external social, health and environmental costs. It is easy to spin failure as success when the parameters are narrowly defined.

The main players in the global agribusiness sector rank among the Fortune 500 corporations. 

These companies are high rollers in a geopoliticised, globalised system of food production where huge company profits are linked to the worldwide eradication of the small farm (the bedrock of global food production), bad food, poor health, rigged trade, mono-cropping and diminished food and diet diversity, degraded soil and inappropriate models of development.

Britain is a leader in intensive, corporate-dominated agriculture. But is this the model of agriculture the world should rely on?
Let us turn to campaigner and environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason to appreciate some of the consequences of this model. 

She has just written an open letter to Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England and chief medical adviser to the British government. 

Although written to Davies, the letter is intended for the four chief medical officers of health for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Public Health England.

Her letter is essentially a plea to highly placed officials to act.
Mason provides a stark reminder of the impacts of the agrochemical/agribusiness sector, its political power and its effects on health. 

She draws attention to a report by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, which states unequivocally that the storyline perpetuated by Monsanto and Bayer by saying we need pesticides and (often chemical-dependent) GMOs to feed the world is a myth.

The report is severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms,” “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions.”

The authors of the report call for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming and move towards sustainable agricultural practices. 

They say: “Excessive use of pesticides is very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital to ensuring food security.”

Mason notes that chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. 

Certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends.

Mason offers Davies and her colleagues evidence that suggests rising UK mortality rates point to a critical, unprecedented health epidemic. 

Arguing that the heavy use of agrochemicals in Britain is a major contributory factor, she argues the mainstream narrative on cancer focuses on the role of alcohol and “lifestyle choices” while sidelining the strong evidence that agrochemicals are having.

If the National Health Service in Britain is experiencing a crisis — as indeed it is — due to rising rates of morbidity (notwithstanding the effects of poor funding and creeping privatisation), surely these spiralling rates of diseases must be addressed. 

And where better to start by shining the light on agrochemicals rather than blaming individuals for lifestyle choices and alcohol consumption? 

Among the various statistics Mason provides are those indicating that colon cancer had risen by 200 per cent, thyroid cancer has doubled, ovarian cancer is up by 70 per cent and cervical cancer is up by 50 per cent since 1998.

Yet, despite the evidence, the corporate media in Britain is largely silent about pesticides.

While Mason produces figures to show the massive increase in a range of agrochemicals over the years, the chief scientist for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Professor Ian Boyd, points out that once a pesticide is approved there is no follow-up. 

There is also no follow-up as to the impacts of not just one chemical but the cocktail of agrochemicals out there and how they interact when in the human body and within the environment.

The impacts of the Monsanto-Bayer deal and the contents of Mason’s letter to the chief medical officers of the UK are just the tip of an iceberg. 

There is a lot more that could and has been said on the impact of agribusiness giants on the globalisation of bad food and poor health, ecological degradation, soil health, ocean dead zones as well as the chemical contamination of our food by the handful of food conglomerates that now increasingly dominate the supply chain.

Alternative approaches and solutions exist but the political influence and financial clout of transnational corporations means that “business as usual” prevails.

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