The Agrofuels Trojan Horse: Biotechnology and the corporate domination of agriculture

Annie Shattuck | 04.01.2008

April 2008, Policy Brief No. 14

Biotechnology is poised to strike at our agricultural system on a scale never before imagined. Ten years after the launch of biotech in agriculture, the debate rages on. Consumers, farmer’s organizations, social movements and environmental advocates all fiercely oppose biotechnology in agriculture, while the industry has continued to expand its presence in the developing world, often through undemocratic means. But resistance, and effectively all public debate on biotech, may well be put to rest for good by the world’s growing dependence on agrofuels. The sunny glow of alternative fuels helps lend biotech the public credibility it has lacked since its market debut. While new traits for agrofuels are already helping corporations amass unprecedented market power, a pipeline of new fuel crops stands waiting in the wings. The new pipeline will have much the same effect as previous biotech offerings: contamination of public genetic resources and even further industry consolidation. Agrofuels are the perfect Trojan Horse, promising not only whole new markets for biotech products, but the irreversible entrenchment of genetically modified crops throughout the world.

Background: The Birth of an Oligopoly

How did we get here? A brief look at the history of consolidation in the biotech industry paints a disturbing picture of what is to come. Riding the waves of the Green Revolution in the 1960’s and ‘70s, the large agricultural chemical corporations, formerly specialized in chemical weapons, began buying up small seed companies to compliment their nascent agricultural chemicals businesses. In the eighties, when agricultural biotechnology was being developed, these companies were the first to jump on board. Over the last decade, with the global spread of biotechnology, the hybrid seed-chemical-biotechnology industry (from here on biotech) consolidated. In 1998, the top ten seed companies controlled 30% of the global market. Now, that same market share is controlled by only two companies.iii This latest round of consolidation was fueled by biotechnology itself. Genetic modification (GM) has been used to vertically integrate market power, allowing the same companies that sell seed to also sell the herbicides and other inputs these GM crops require.

Agrofuels are the perfect Trojan Horse, promising not only whole new markets for biotech products, but the irreversible entrenchment of genetically modified crops throughout the world.

The pattern of technological development in GM is to develop traits that increase dependence of farmers on the biotech industry. The first and most widely planted products are the “Roundup Ready” or herbicide-tolerant products; crop species like corn, soy, and cotton that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont all sell glyphosate resistant seeds as well as the herbicide itself, often in a package. This technology has not only dramatically boosted the sales of glyphosate, but it has become so widespread as to undercut farmers’ use of non-chemical alternatives and integrated weed management systems, fostering farmers’ dependence on both the patented seed and the herbicide. The much discussed “terminator gene,” another early biotech trait, would have served to ensure farmers’ dependence on licensed products by physically preventing farmers from saving seed, had the technology gained regulatory approval. (The industry is still pushing for this.) Even Bt corn, a variety that produces a natural pesticide in the stem of corn plants, increases the share of the seed market subject to strong-arm patent laws and licensing fees, while eroding the effectiveness of Bt as part of a more holistic integrated pest management system. The economic function of these foreign genetic traits is not to decrease chemical use, but to increase market dominance and control over the agro-input industry by the corporations holding the patents.