The dominance of a small number of big companies over the global food chain is increasing.
Only two companies control 40% of the global commercial seed market, compared with 10 companies controlling the same proportion of the market 25 years ago.
Agricultural commodity trading is concentrated, with 10 commodity traders in 2020 dominating a market worth half a trillion dollars. Food prices have risen sharply in recent months, after the disruptions caused by the Ukraine war, and the continuing impacts of the Covid pandemic, sending the profits of key commodity traders and grain producers soaring.
The Chinese state-owned company Cofco is now the world’s second-biggest agricultural commodity trader, behind only Cargill of the US, with sales in 2020 of just over $100bn (£89bn), compared with $134bn for Cargill. The next biggest trader, Archer-Daniels-Midland, had sales of $64bn in 2020.
Syngenta, the seed, pesticides and biotech company, is now majority owned by the Chinese government through Sinochem and ChemChina. The group controlled about a quarter of the global market in agricultural chemicals in 2020, with $15bn in sales, far greater than its nearest rivals Bayer and BASF. Two of the other Top 10 agrochemicals companies are also Chinese, as is the seventh big synthetic fertiliser company, Sinofert.
According to the ETC Group, an eco-justice organisation, “In 2020, the sale of 45% of one of the world’s largest commodity firms, Louis Dreyfus, to a state-owned holding company in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates signals that cash-rich countries are positioning to climate-proof food security via offshore food production with little consideration for sustainability or the notion of regional food self-reliance.”
Jim Thomas, of ETC Group, said the increasing market dominance of a small number of companies was concerning, particularly at a time of high and rising food prices, a gathering climate crisis and biodiversity crisis. “Power over the global food system is being concentrated in a very small number of hands, and we should be concerned about that,” he said. He also warned that agricultural workers were in danger of being thrown off the land as robotic technology began to be used in an increasing number of countries.
"We uncovered a vast digital restructuring of the commercial food system, including AI, robots, drones, blockchains,” he said. “Concerns include manipulating customers, taking decision-making away from farmers, replacing and algorithmically controlling food chain workers, and the climate costs of the data use.”