Web Note:  You can follow this URL to a chart of organic structure €“ it is a bit outdated, but clearly shows the takeover of the organic industry by the big companies. 

Concentration ratios of the top agricultural firms, 2001

Beef packers (Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, Farmland) 81%

Corn exports (Cargill-Continental Grain, ADM, Zen Noh) 81%

Soybean crushing (ADM, Cargill, Bunge, AGP) 80%

Soybean exports (Cargill-Continental Grain, ADM, Zen Noh) 65%

Flour milling (ADM, ConAgra, Cargill, General Mills) 61%

Terminal grain handling facilities (Cargill, Cenex Harvest States, ADM, General Mills) 60%

Pork packers (Smithfield, Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill) 59%

Broilers (Tyson, Gold Kist, Pilgrim€™s Pride, ConAgra) 50%

Pork production (Smithfield, Premium Standard, Seaboard, Triumph) 46%

Turkeys (Hormel, ConAgra, Cargill, Pilgrim€™s Pride) 45%

 While grocery store shelves appear to provide  abundant choices, most of these products are marketed by a small and decreasing number of firms. Gigantic multinational corporations are consolidating their control over our food system, including the organic sector. The trend raises concerns about how this power is exercised, as most of these corporations are accountable to their shareholders, not to the communities in which they operate. While the situation may currently appear bleak, corporate dominance is being challenged by groups that have been adversely affected, such as farmers, workers and consumers.

 The Dynamics Of Consolidation

 The food system can be thought of as a long chain, with food passing through a number of steps or links in the chain on the way from farmers to consumers, such as food storage and processing. In 1999, Dr. William Heffernan and his colleagues at the University of Missouri identified a worrying trend, the emergence of clusters of firms that are working to put a padlock on this chain and control it from €œthe gene to the supermarket shelf.€1

 There are three processes by which this is occurring:

1) horizontal integration,

2) vertical integration. and

3) global expansion.

Horizontal integration refers to consolidation of ownership and control within one stage of the food system, such as processing, for one particular commodity. Heffernan and colleagues have been documenting the ratio of the market share of the top four firms in a specific industry compared to the total market, called the concentration ratio (CR4),

since the mid-1980s. The CR4 is important because economists suggest that when four firms control 40% of the market, it is no longer competitive. This means that the largest firms will have a disproportionate influence on not just the price of a commodity, but also the quantity, quality and location of production. The table above shows the CR4 ratios for a number of food commodities, indicating the current extent of horizontal integration. All of these ratios exceed the 40% threshold, and have been increasing over the last few decades.

The second process, vertical integration, involves linking firms at more than one stage of the food chain, such as upstream suppliers or downstream buyers. An example would be Smithfield€™s involvement in both pork production and pork packing, as shown in the table above. Another is ConAgra, which distributes seed, fertilizer and pesticides; owns and operates grain elevators, barges and railroad cars; manufactures animal feed; produces chickens, processes chickens for sale in meat cases; and further processes chickens for frozen dinners.

The third process, global expansion, is the attempt by agribusiness firms to increase their market share worldwide. This is most apparent on the retail end of the food chain, as some analysts have predicted there may soon be only 6 global food retailers3. A massive wave of mergers has been occurring in this industry recently, spurred by the recent entry of Wal-Mart into food retailing and its expansion to other continents (such as South America and Europe). In fact, Wal-Mart may be the only US based company big enough to compete with European firms like Carrefour, Ahold and Metro (each of which has stores in more than 20 countries). Before Wal-Mart became a major player in food sales the top 5 retail chains in the US controlled less than a quarter of the market (1997 data). Current estimates suggest that the top 5 now share more than half the market.

Food chain clusters are formed when groups of firms join together to control every step in the food chain through these processes of horizontal integration, vertical integration and global expansion. The links may be through formal or informal agreements, including mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures or strategic alliances. Although their boundaries are constantly shifting, several potentially emerging clusters have been identified. For instance Cargill and Monsanto form a cluster, with Monsanto providing genetic material and seeds, and Cargill involved in grain collection and processing, and meat production and processing. Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the US, is linked to this cluster through an agreement with Cargill to receive case-ready meat. DuPont/ConAgra and Novartis (Syngenta)/ADM have similar ties4.

Although predictions are very difficult, based on other industries that have formed global oligopolies rather than monopolies (such as automobiles, pharmaceuticals and oil) there are likely to be as few as four to six clusters worldwide.

Effects Of Consolidation

The implications of what such a system will mean for farmers can already be seen in the poultry industry in the US. Ninety-five percent of chickens produced for meat are grown under production contracts with fewer than 40 companies. The farmer furnishes the land and labor, and is required to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for buildings and other equipment. The company provides the chicks, feed and medicine and agrees to pay a guaranteed price per pound. In the 1950s, when there were more than a thousand companies, most poultry farmers benefited from such contracts because they were protected from price fluctuations. Now that four vertically integrated firms control 50% of the market, the terms of the contracts are much more favorable to the companies. Their power is so great that some companies have been found to systematically cheat farmers by underestimating the weight of birds, overestimating the weight of feed, or providing poor quality chicks or feed. A farmer who complains is likely to have their contract canceled and be placed on a blacklist5. Although most poultry farmers are making poverty level wages or below, without a contract they can€™t pay off their mortgages and face foreclosure. Some cynics have suggested €œwhy buy the farm when you can own the farmer?€ and describe chicken farmers as €œserfs€ who are never able to escape their debts.

 Grain and vegetable growers may soon find themselves in a similar situation. Genetically engineered (GE) crops are controlled by just six multinational corporations, and the technology is being used as a tool to consolidate the seed supply. Crop farmers are then being locked into food chain clusters through €œbundling,€ or linking patented seeds with contracts, chemicals and credit. Monsanto€™s Roundup Ready seeds can only be used with Roundup herbicide, even though cheaper versions of this herbicide are available. Pioneer DuPont seed gives better interest rates on financing, depending upon how much €˜approved€™ products the farmer buys, and approved chemicals include those from Syngenta, Bayer/Aventis, and Dow. The precedent set with GE seeds is also being extended by €œbundling€ chemicals and other inputs with conventional seeds. In the UK, Syngenta€™s hybrid barley can only be purchased in conjunction with the company€™s growth regulator and fungicides.

Consumers are also harmed by consolidation. GE foods have been introduced into the food system without public consent, or even public knowledge, as recent polls have shown6, thus limiting the freedom to choose non-GE products. Price gouging is another way that food conglomerates may exploit their increasing power. Although farm milk prices are the lowest they have been since the 1970s, prices paid by consumers have not declined. Consumers Union has reported high retail milk prices at California supermarkets when compared to smaller markets, and suggested these prices do not follow farmer and processor costs7. A recent class action lawsuit accused two major supermarkets in Chicago of fixing the price of milk over a four-year period, costing consumers up to $125 million. This is somewhat of an exception, however, as most food prices have remained low over the past few decades (aside from products like carbonated beverages, snacks and breakfast cereals, which are already dominated by a small number of brands). Although consumer pocketbooks have been much less affected by consolidation than farmers and workers, this situation may change if a handful of food chain clusters gain control of the global food supply.

Consolidation In Organic

 Organic agriculture is not immune from these trends. Many organic brands have been acquired by giant food processors such as General Mills, Kraft (Philip Morris) and Kellogg, as the accompanying illustration indicates. Slightly smaller global food processors not shown in this figure are also establishing their own organic product lines (such as Dole, Chiquita, and McCormick & Co.) or acquiring existing organic brands (J.M. Smucker bought R.W. Knudsen, After the Fall and Santa Cruz Organic; Novartis subsidiary Gerber€™s bought Tender Harvest). The market share for some of these brands is extremely high €“ Horizon, White Wave and Earthbound Farms control over 60% of the market for organic milk, organic soymilk, and organic bagged salad mix respectively. Earthbound Farms is a brand of Natural Selection Foods and a vertically integrated €œseed to salad€ operation – it contracts with over 200 growers. It is one of just five farms that market half of the organic produce sold in California8.

In the rapidly consolidating food retailing industry, the top 4 supermarkets, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway and Albertson€™s, are increasing the amount of shelf space devoted to organic products. Kroger, for example, has a natural and organic section in 43% of its 2400 stores9. Fast growing natural foods chains such as Whole Foods (currently the 21st largest supermarket by sales10), Wild Oats and Trader Joe€™s have had success with their own brands of organic products, prompting mainstream retailers such as Kroger, Safeway, Piggly Wiggly and Harris-Teeter to introduce organic brands as well. Such growth is unlikely to benefit small farms because many supermarkets no longer allow managers to buy directly from local farmers or food processors. Instead, these corporations prefer to deal with operations that can supply huge volumes for their increasingly centralized supply chains.

Challenges To Consolidation: Alternative Futures

Despite the predictions of some economists, this global industrial food system is not inevitable. Dr. Mary Hendrickson and Dr. Heffernan believe that although the current system appears very powerful, it also has potential weaknesses. They state, €œTo succeed (alternative agriculture) movements must organize where the dominant system is vulnerable €“ by making ecologically sound decisions, by relying on time and management rather than capital, and by building authentic trusting relationships that are embedded in community.€11 Examples of this approach can include CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture), roadside stands and farmers markets that connect consumers directly with local farms. Other emerging alternatives include farmer marketing cooperatives with retail brands (such as Organic Valley), and €˜eco-labels€™ that represent ecological and social criteria that go €˜beyond€™ organic. These eco-labels include: €˜fair trade€™, which guarantees a fair price to the farmer and a fair wage to farmworkers; €˜humane€™, which assures consumers that livestock have not been treated cruelly; and region-specific labels.

The power of food conglomerates is also being challenged in the political arena:

 In 1998 South Dakota voters passed by a constitutional amendment that placed restrictions on corporate involvement in agriculture (although it was overturned by an appellate court in August, 2003). Fed up with factory hog farms and the application of toxic sewage sludge to farms, two townships in Pennsylvania went further and passed ordinances that declare corporations are not €˜persons€™ under the US Constitution.

€œCheckoffs,€ or mandatory payments to commodity promotion boards have been ruled unconstitutional for pork, beef, grape and mushroom farmers (the pork and beef decisions are currently still being fought in the court system, but are widely expected to be upheld). Many independent farmers feel these funds help agribusiness at their expense, and courts have agreed that they violate producers First Amendment right to free speech and association.

The 2002 Farm Bill included provisions that require labeling the country of origin for perishable agricultural commodities, which will become mandatory by September 30, 2004. Surveys have consistently found that more than two-thirds of consumers are willing to pay more for meat and produce from their own country12.

Regulations that ban Wal-Mart Supercenters and other €œbig box€ grocery stores have been enacted in Oakland, Martinez, San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande in California, and in at least 18 other cities in the US13.

Finally, many efforts are underway to create a more decentralized food system, involving both the creation of alternative structures and addressing the political power of oligopolies. In Chicago, for example, an initiative to create a regional organic food system advocates new consumer food cooperatives, farmers markets and community gardens, as well as increasing farmland protection, reducing subsidies to agribusiness and increasing public funding for sustainable food systems14.

Consolidation in food and agriculture has many negative consequences for the majority of those who grow, harvest, process and eat food. These include lowering incomes and purchasing power, limiting choices, and harming human, animal and ecosystem health. However the importance of food makes it likely that as more people become aware of these consequences, the power of corporate agribusiness will be more effectively confronted.

   1. Heffernan, W.D. 1999. €œBiotechnology and Mature Capitalism,€ Presented at the 11th Annual Meeting of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council. Lincoln, Nebraska.

2. Hendrickson, M. & W.D. Heffernan 2002a. €œConcentration in Agricultural Markets,€ National Farmers Union.

3. Hendrickson, M., W.D. Heffernan, P.H. Howard & J.B. Heffernan. 2001. €œConsolidation in Food Retailing and Dairy: Implications for Farmers and Consumers in a Global Food System,€ National Farmers Union.

4. Heffernan, W.D., M. Hendrickson & R. Gronski. 1999. €œConsolidation in the Food and Agriculture System,€ National Farmers Union.

5. Fesperman, D. & K. Shatzkin. €œThe Plucking of the American Chicken Farmer,€ Baltimore Sun, February 28, 1999.

6. Hallman, W.K., W.C. Hebden, H.L. Aquino, C.L. Cuite & J.T. Lang. 2003. €œPublic Perceptions of Genetically Modified Foods: A National Study of American Knowledge and Opinion,€ Rutgers University.

7. Odabashian, E. 1999. €œWhite Liquid Gold,€ Consumers Union, West Coast Regional Office.

8. Baker, L. 2002. €œThe Not-So-Sweet Success of Organic Farming,€ Salon, July 29.

9. Forster, J. 2002. €œLook Who€™s Going Organic,€ Business Week, October 9.

10. Weir, T. 2003. €œWal-Mart€™s the 1: America€™s 50 Largest Supermarket Chains,€ Progressive Grocer, May 1, 35-48.

11. Hendrickson, M.K. & W.D. Heffernan. 2002b. €œOpening Spaces Through Relocalization: Locating Potential Resistance in the Weaknesses of the Global Food System,€ Sociologia Ruralis 42(4): 347-369. Quote p. 361.

12. Umberger, W.J., D.M. Feuz, C.R. Calkins & B.M. Sitz. 2003. €œCountry-of-Origin Labeling of Beef Products: U.S. Consumers Perceptions,€ Presented at the Food & Agriculture Marketing Policy Section Conference, Washington, DC.

13. DeFao, J. 2003. €œOakland Bans Mega Grocers: Wal-Mart Blocked by City Council Vote,€ San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, October 23, A19.

14. Slama, J. 2002. €œThe Land of Organic Opportunity: Steps to Building a Regional Organic Food System Serving Chicago€ Sustain.

Phil Howard is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz where his research addresses the role of consumers in fostering sustainable agriculture. He is a co-author of the €œConsolidation in Food Retailing and Dairy€ study conducted for the National Farmers Union.

Originally printed in CCOF Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 2003-2004.
Reprinted with permission. www.ccof.org