Food barons are making a killing from this crisis

Ahead of their event on resisting monopoly capitalism, Global Justice Now’s Nick Dearden explains the rise of ‘food billionaires’, and what we can do to challenge their power.

Food prices have rocketed. Supermarket shelves are empty. The number of people going hungry has ballooned. But the cost of living crisis has not hit everyone. The food barons – like their friends in the oil and gas industry – are making a killing.

Oxfam calculates that there were 62 new ‘food billionaires’ created between 2020 and 2022, while billionaires in the food and energy sectors saw their collective fortunes increase by a billion dollars every two days.

‘We have to have healthy margins to be able to build out that innovation and get it to our customers in the market’ one food corporation boss told his investors.

But the ‘healthy margins’ are not being ploughed into better products any more than they are used to lower prices for shoppers. Rather, they are being passed back to wealthy shareholders and owners.

As Oxfam says, ‘Not only are companies passing increased input costs on to consumers, but they are also capitalizing on the crisis, using it as a smokescreen to charge even higher prices.’ US President Joe Biden, in a similar vein, calls them ‘war profiteers’.

We have enough food

The simple fact is we have a deeply broken food system. But that isn’t because we don’t produce enough food. In fact, the world produces more food than it ever has before, more than enough to keep up with growing populations. Even Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine did much less to disrupt global food supplies than is commonly believed.

Corporations tell us what we’ll eat, tell farmers what they’ll grow or rear and dictate what they’ll sell their product for, and what we’ll pay for it

It’s the food system itself that is the problem. In particular, that system is controlled by an ever smaller group of businesses. With no need to keep prices low, these corporations boost prices, while pushing down costs – screwing farmers and consumers alike. Oxfam argues at least 50 per cent of the current price rises are caused by markups charged by these massive corporations.

The sheer scale of the problem is set out in a recent report by tech researchers, the ETC group, entitled ‘Food Barons’. It shows a rapidly growing concentration, with many parts of the agricultural and food sectors captured by between four and six corporate giants.

Company accumulation

A woman wearing a mask stands in a supermarket looking at the shelves. She has one hand on her head and is holding a mobile phone. She wears a red backpack, a light coloured shirt and black trousers.
Shoppers are feeling the rise in food costs. VIKI MOHAMAD / UNSPLASH

One area of massive concentration is the trade in agricultural commodities, including grains, meat and sugar, a process dominated by ‘the most powerful and least-transparent companies in the industrial food chain’. The top 10 commodity traders brought in more than half a trillion dollars in 2020. Cargill, the largest player, is one of four giants which now control between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of the international grain trade.

Over three decades, these corporations have accumulated hundreds of small companies, with Cargill alone acquiring 113. It’s a process which has also seen these corporations become speculators on financial markets, increasingly making money not from actually producing food, but gambling on the price of food – a process which can itself ramp up those costs.

Commodity trading as a whole generated $115 billion last year for food, energy and financial corporations, profiting from the very chaos which devastates the lives of producers and consumers.

The growth in ‘mergers and acquisitions’ has been a dominant feature of the neoliberal economy. While 25 years ago, 10 corporations controlled 40 per cent of the seed market, today it is just two giants. And these corporations increasingly wield their control over related industries too. A series of mega-mergers means just four corporations – Bayer, Corteva, Syngenta and BASF – control more than half of the global seed market and more than 60 per cent of the world’s agrochemical market, creating a nightmare of dependence for farmers.

The monopolization of food extends from farm to fork. In the US the problem is particularly acute, with four companies controlling 85 per cent of corn seed sales, four firms controlling over 80 per cent of meat processing and – if a merger currently on the table goes through – just three supermarkets controlling 70 per cent of the grocery market in 167 cities.

As Krista Brown from the American Economic Liberties Project puts it: ‘We’re at a point in our market concentrations that we haven’t seen ever before.’

This gives us a radically different picture of our economy from the one we’re taught by mainstream economists.

Growing power of the food barons

Far from being a gigantic marketplace, where no central authority gets to make decisions, and everyone goes about their business, expressing their deepest desires by buying things; the reality is that massive players use their access to finance to gobble up smaller businesses and become ever more powerful.

These corporations tell us what we’ll eat, tell farmers what they’ll grow or rear and dictate what they’ll sell their product for, and what we’ll pay for it.

This has created a dangerously fragile and extractive model. Just-in-time deliveries from global supply chains help drive down costs but leave us vulnerable to any event – whether a particularly rainy winter or a global pandemic.

It is estimated that around 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1990s as farmers are encouraged to cultivate similar high-yielding crops. Around three-quarters of the food we consume now comes from only 12 plant and 5 animal species.

What’s more, these food giants have directly captured global decision-making processes creating, for example, enforceable international trade rules that make it harder for governments to protect and support their small farmers, or rules that make it easier for financiers to gamble on food prices.

Corporations rule the world

Of course, none of these problems are limited to the food sector. From the medicines we take to the media we read, to the technology we use to work and connect with friends, our lives are dominated by corporations that are growing ever more powerful.

Research from the US finds that the top 1 per cent of corporations there account for a truly astonishing 81 per cent of business sales and 97 per cent of business assets. The top 0.1 per cent alone accounts for 88 per cent of corporate assets and 66 per cent of sales. A similar trend can be seen across Europe. Here too, the growth in corporate power has been met, at least until recently, with little action. Of 8,000 proposed business mergers the European Commission was notified of since 1990, only 30 were blocked.

The economic transformation is likely to involve elements of both breaking apart big corporations, taking sectors into public ownership and constraining the financial system

But perhaps we’re at a turning point.

In the US, the epicentre of this system and home to so many of the modern barons, a new anti-monopoly movement is growing rapidly. Grasping the urgency of the moment, President Biden regularly lambasts these corporations.

In a sweeping executive order in July 2021, he promised to implement ‘full and aggressive enforcement of our antitrust laws,’ saying: ‘We’re now 40 years into the experiment of letting giant corporations accumulate more and more power...I believe that experiment failed.’ He also appointed antitrust expert Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission, one of the world's most powerful economic regulators.

Putting anger into action

These steps mark a break from neoliberalism. But we will need to push much further and build a bigger movement around the anger rightly focussed on big energy, big food, big pharma and big tech.

By reconceptualizing the economy as one of monopoly capitalism, rather than a free market, we can mobilize many different people and groups across society behind the goal of breaking the capture of our economy and society by private interests.

There is no single solution to the problem of monopolies, but the economic transformation is likely to involve elements of both breaking apart big corporations, taking sectors into public ownership and constraining the financial system.

The first step is to form this bigger movement, one that goes beyond fighting in one sector or  corporation – as important as those activities are – to fundamentally transform the economy as a whole.

Global Justice Now’s Resisting Monopoly Capitalism conference, will be held on Saturday 25 March at SOAS in London.