By Mort Amsel
“Agribusiness is concentrated to a point that would make a Wall Street master of the universe blush. Vast globe-spanning corporations, many of them US-based, dominate the industry. Let's start with "inputs," the stuff farmers buy before they plant their crops. As of 2007, six companies owned 75 percent of the global pesticide market, and four companies sold half of the globe's seeds, ETC Group reckons. Here's the kicker: Three of them—Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont—are on both lists. The agrichemical makers have transitioned into seed barons, genetically engineering their major seed lines to resist their own herbicides.
Three companies process more than 70 percent of beef in the US; four slaughter and pack more than 58 percent of our pork and chicken.
Monsanto is an interesting case. In addition to being the planet's largest seed vendor, with 23 percent of the market, it licenses its patented genetically modified traits to other companies. Think of the physical seed as the hardware and traits as the software. In the trait market, Monsanto holds a near monopoly: By 2007, according to ETC Group, 87 percent of the acreage dedicated to genetically engineered crops contained crops bearing Monsanto traits.
Okay, so farmers rely on a small handful of firms for their inputs. But it turns out the same thing holds true when they harvest and sell their crops. Just four companies—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus—control up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. In the United States, three of those firms process 70 percent of the soybeans and 40 percent of the wheat milled into flour. The bulk of corn and soy grown by US farmers ends up feeding animals in vast factories, and here, too, the consolidation is dramatic: Three companies now process more than 70 percent of all beef, and just four firms slaughter and pack upwards of 58 percent of all pork and chicken. By 2002, just four companies produced 75 percent of cereal and snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and half of all ice cream.
Finally, let's look at the supermarkets. Walmart opened its first grocery-selling "superstore" in 1988. Today, it controls 2,750 superstores and more than a quarter of the US grocery market. As a result, the combined market share of the four largest grocery players has doubled, from less than 20 percent in 1992 to nearly 40 percent today. And, despite acres of shelves groaning with thousands of products, only a few large companies stock supermarkets. By 2002, the USDA reported, four companies churned out 75 percent of breakfast cereal, 75 percent of snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and 50 percent of ice cream.
From 1976 to 2009, according to USDA figures, the inflation-adjusted average hourly wage of meatpacking workers plunged, as did union membership among meatpacking employees. Predictably, working conditions deteriorated. (See our recent Hormel Foods exposé: "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secrets.") In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report titled "Blood, Sweat, and Fear," which concluded: "Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers' efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They crush workers' self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the perceived vulnerability of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work sites. These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies. These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment."
Finally, to keep their animals alive and growing fast under dire conditions, the meat industry laces feed rations with antibiotics. The FDA recently revealed that 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock facilities. Nearly every US public health and farm oversight agency has acknowledged that the practice contributes heavily to the rise of antibiotic-resistant human pathogens—vicious superbugs like MRSA, a resistant form of staphylococcus that kills now more Americans than AIDS does. For more on Big Food, go to the source of this article."