I haven’t watched many James Bond movies lately but back when I did, a favourite plot line was about 007 saving the world from some megalomaniacal billionaire who wanted to run the world. Back then it seemed as far-fetched a fantasy as Bond’s magical attraction to beautiful women. Today it’s beginning to seem like reality.
We’ve got Elon Musk, the South African/Canadian/American who founded PayPal, now sends rockets into space for NASA through SpaceX and wants you to take you for a ride in driverless cars made by Tessla. There’s Jeff Bezos who owns Amazon that started out selling books on line but now is into e-commerce, logistics, payments, hardware, data storage, and media. There’s Facebook’s Mark Zucker-berg who has created a social media tool so powerful – and so out of control – that it can apparently be used to influence elections.
And from farmers’ point of view there is the ever-growing concentrat-ion that reduces competition both among the companies that supply their seeds, fertilizer and crop-protection chemicals at one end of the production cycle, and buy their crops at the other. Dow Chemical merged with Dupont. ChemChina bought Syngenta. Bayer bought Monsanto then sold some off its seeds and herbicides business to BSAF. On the marketing side, Bunge and ADM may merge.
Some observers say the real goal behind this merger mania is the collection of data. Just as Google and Facebook have become among the world’s largest and richest corpor-ations through collecting and selling data, so Big Ag is eying the riches awaiting them if they can bring together data from clients and from independent sources on everything to weather patterns and yield statistics to soil moisture levels.
Some worry that the next round of mergers might be between suppliers like seed and chemical companies and farm equipment manufacturers. Imagine the wealth of data that can be assembled if all those on-board yield monitors and computers can be merged with the information the seed and chemical companies have already been assembling. Imagine if farmers then have to buy back their own information at a price.
We used to worry about this kind of accumulation of power. Way back in the early 1900s U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was famous for trust-busting. But about the time globalization seized the political agenda, concern for over-concentra-tion was replaced by building globally competitive companies.
The imbalance of power between farmers and the companies that sold them supplies and bought their production was the driving force in farm politics for much of the 20th century. Many farm leaders gave years of their lives to bringing farmers together to have enough clout to get a fair deal through co-ops and marketing boards.
We’ve given back many of those gains such as Ontario Pork’s auction system. As some farmers got bigger, they felt confident they could negotiate a fair deal directly with their suppliers or buyers.
Government too has turned over much of its role of providing farmers with information to big business. Until recently I called at the former Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food building in Clinton every month to drop off copies of The Rural Voice to employees there. I remember the excitement when that building opened. I remember the decision under Mike Harris’s government that most of the advice OMAFRA provided could come instead from private industry. There’s hardly any OMAFRA presence left in the building.
We’ve given all the power back to increasingly powerful, distant corporations. I hope we’re not crippling farmers with a horrible disadvantage again. ◊