Corporate Consolidation and the Lost Promise of Agricultural Biotechnology

I’ll be planting soybeans this weekend.  The days have been cold here all spring and add in the odd rain into the mix and things haven’t come together until now.  Tonight I finished spraying another tank of burn down.  My targets are glyphosate resistant weeds.  I’ve got 3 of them, been fighting them for years.  However, I’ve never grown a Roundup Ready soybean.  That’s what Ag biotechnology has done for me, given me trouble.  I have to be one step ahead always to beat back these mutant weeds.

On the other hand my cornfields are all genetically modified.  My corn yields have increased significantly over 20 years ago.  I only wish I could say that about soybeans.  Ditto for all of southwestern Ontario.  That is just a long story, told often in these pages.  Now I see that Bayer has initiated takeover talks with Monsanto.  The oligopolistic world of the seed/chem world just can’t stand pat.  It makes you wonder what the future may hold.

20 years ago I thought agricultural biotechnology would mean that the streets would be paved with gold.  At least I thought that the future would be so much better for farmers because of what agricultural biotechnology meant at the time.  I can remember doing radio commentaries saying that maybe we would have palm trees outside the studio in Chatham Ontario. The point I was making at the time was the future was going to be something we could never imagine.

At the time I thought that spraying glyphosate on soybeans would be a tremendous thing.  Before that we were always faced with a myriad of chemicals to kill weeds and nothing really worked well.  The specter of spraying glyphosate to reduce cost had me thinking whole bunch of good things. However, in my opinion it was ruined by technology use agreements at high prices.  I never ever did see an economic reason to grow glyphosate resistant soybeans and I still don’t today. However, I’ve got all the problems caused by too much glyphosate.  Those bad weeds spread by pollen and I don’t have a net fine enough to keep it out.

Corn of course was different and it might have had something to do with the physiology of the plant.  However, inserting the BT gene into corn and increasing the productivity significantly has made that experience so much better.  However, when you pay over $300 for a bag of corn in the spring, something rubs me about that the wrong way.  As long as productivity increases are there, we might put up with it.  However, at least in southwestern Ontario we spray glyphosate resistant corn hybrids conventionally.  We have to do that because of resistant weeds.  The advantage of that has long passed.

So there are problems and much of it is a question of convenience and choice.  There were many people that decided to use glyphosate exclusively on their crops and it is worked out for them.  They have paid a price for that, but they have deemed it a good choice in their management system.  Everybody has a story.

One thing I didn’t see coming 20 years ago with the introduction of agricultural biotechnology is segmented markets for non-GM crops.  For instance, I like to say I grow the same type of soybeans that I grew 35 years ago when I started farming.  I plant the soybeans and use a mix of chemicals to fight off the weeds.  Since I have never grown an RR soybean, that’s what I still do.  The differences that there are premiums for non-GM soybeans and they have increased since the introduction of the Roundup ready trait.  There are other examples too, but non-gmo soybeans are one of the best examples that I can think of in Ontario.

So now it is 2016 and we have Bayer trying to buy Monsanto, Dow Chemical has agreed to merge with DuPont and ChemChina is purchasing Syngenta.  With these purchases the seed chemical market will be changing again.  It is likely to mean higher input prices for farmers and a continued highly controlled environment in the seed business.  Simply put, there’s a lot of money in the modern seed business and oligopolies are very good at extracting as much money from it as they can.  $400 seed corn may be in the offing.

Will I finally see my agricultural biotech palm trees in southwestern Ontario?  Well, I dunno.  However, to me the pot of gold at the end of the agricultural biotech rainbow has to be more than just selling more herbicide or restricting choice to raise prices.  However, over the last 20 years, that’s mostly been the story.  Ethanol smoothed a lot of it over.  The challenge ahead will be to do it differently.