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Why Bayer's massive deal to buy Monsanto is so worrisome

About to get Bayer’d.
(JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Monsanto. It’s hard to even say the name without triggering a fierce reaction. The company has long been the public face of GMOs, thanks in part to the sheer dominance of its corn, soy, cotton, and other crops engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

And pretty soon, Monsanto may no longer exist. At least not in its current form.

On Wednesday, the German chemical conglomerate Bayer offered to buy up Monsanto for $56 billion, in what could prove to be the largest corporate merger of the year. Monsanto has accepted the bid. And if the deal is approved by regulators — which is still an open question — the new company would become the largest agribusiness on the planet, selling 29 percent of the world’s seeds and 24 percent of its pesticides.

That would put the new firm in a commanding position vis-à-vis our food supply. Which is why European Union regulators and the US Department of Justice are likely to scrutinize this deal more closely than usual, to make sure it doesn’t create an all-consuming monopoly that can crank up prices on farmers and shoppers. The deal comes amid a blurry rush of agribusiness consolidation in recent months, with ChemChina-Syngenta and DuPont-Dow Chemical forming their own multibillion-dollar Voltrons.

Some onlookers are fretting that the reduced competition could shrivel up innovation, leading to slower improvements in crop yields. Others worry that these new agricultural giants may have outsize political power. "They’ll have more ability to lobby governments," says Phil Howard of Michigan State University, who studies consolidation in the food industry. "They’ll have a lot more power to shape policies that benefit themselves at the expense of consumers and farmers."

It’s a big story, and not just because Monsanto is such a famous (or infamous, if you prefer) brand. The consolidation of the world’s seed, chemical, and fertilizer industries over the past two decades has been astonishing, with potentially large ripple effects for farms and food systems all over the globe.

The agricultural industry keeps getting more and more consolidated...

Tommy Stevenson directs the driver of the cotton picker during harvest on BTC farm October 19, 2003, near Clarksdale Mississippi.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Back in 1994, the world’s four biggest seed companies controlled just 21 percent of the market. But in the years since, as crop biotechology advanced, companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and Dupont went on a feeding frenzy, buying up smaller companies and their patents. Today, the top four seed companies and top four agrochemical firms command more than half their respective markets.

And the pressures to merge have only become even more intense. Due to an economic slowdown in China and a glut of food production over the past few years, the global agricultural economy has been slumping. Commodity prices have fallen sharply, and farmers have less to spend on supplies (as well as on pricier biotech seeds). And the major seed, chemical, and fertilizer companies haven’t been able to churn out enough innovative new products to counteract this trend.

So their only choice at this point is to consolidate further, hoping to convince shareholders that they can slash costs and keep profits high.

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer, has found itself in a surprisingly precarious position. For years, the company reaped huge profits from selling its popular weedkiller, glyphosate (known as "Roundup") in tandem with crops genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate (known as "Roundup Ready" crops). But thanks in part to improper use, more and more weeds in the United States are developing resistance to glyphosate — and Monsanto is racing to find a replacement. The company is currently investing $1 billion to develop crops resistant to dicamba, another herbicide, but a merger would help it maintain market share in the meantime.

Last year, Monsanto put in a failed bid to buy up Syngenta, the world’s largest agrochemical producer. After the deal fell through, Syngenta CEO Mike Mack said the bid showed that Monsanto’s "core markets have been saturated" and that the company lacked "fundamentally new innovation" to drive growth. You might say the same about the Bayer-Monsanto merger.

Monsanto’s not alone here. Last year, Dow Chemical and Dupont agreed to combine their crop science divisions, and are waiting on US and EU regulators for approval. This year, the China National Chemical Corporation got the okay from US regulators to buy the Swiss seed company Syngenta in a $43 billion deal. Last week, in Canada, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and Agrium joined forces to create a fertilizer giant amid slumping fertilizer prices.

If all these mergers go through, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones points out, the three biggest companies that will emerge (Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, and DowDupont) will sell 59 percent of the world’s patented seeds and 64 percent of all pesticides. The behemoths are getting behemoth-ier.

Why all these mergers are worrisome

Inside the Greenhouses of Monsanto
Advanced seed chipping machines inside Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, May 21, 2009.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

There are a couple of reasons to be concerned about an agricultural landscape dominated by just a handful of giant companies. If firms can corner key markets in seeds and chemicals, they might be able to raise prices of their products on farmers, which in turn could make food more expensive. For this reason, groups like the National Farmers Union have been opposing many of these deals.

The other fear is that if these behemoths face less competition, they may face less pressure to pursue the sorts of innovations needed to improve crop yields and help feed a rapidly growing world. Some worry that these newly merged companies would end up focusing more on their most profitable crops rather than branch into smaller and underserved markets such as Africa.

"As these industries have consolidated, they’ve spent less on research, and what research they do has been steered toward big blockbuster profits with commodity crops such as corn or soy," Howard says. That means they’ve been spending less on smaller crops and even focusing less on smaller markets like the Southeast US.

Last year, when Monsanto was trying to buy up Syngenta, the company argued these fears were unfounded. Among other things, the company contended that innovation might actually be quicker, not slower, if research labs were consolidated.

The big question now is whether regulators will buy these arguments. The US Justice Department’s antitrust division will have to decide whether to approve the Bayer-Monsanto deal, block it, or add conditions before it can go through.

For their part, Bayer and Monsanto are arguing that the two companies have little overlap: Monsanto focuses on seeds and biology, Bayer on chemicals. But, for instance, Jack Kaskey of Bloomberg points out that the newly merged Bayer-Monsanto company would control about 70 percent of cottonseed sales in the United States — so that may be one possible area of focus (and perhaps the new firm will have to divest its cottonseed assets).

In years past, this deal might have been a foregone conclusion, as US regulators regularly waved through similar deals with few changes. But more recently, DOJ has become much more active in scrutinizing agribusiness mergers. As Philpott points out, just two weeks ago, the DOJ halted a deal in which Monsanto would’ve sold its precision planting division to John Deere — because the latter would have had 86 percent of the market in these technologies. Not an auspicious sign for Bayer.

On the other side of the Atlantic, EU regulators tend to be extremely critical of GM crops, so they may put up even more of a fight. "There is a risk of a lot of regulatory and political scrutiny. We put chance of approval at 50 percent," Jeremy Redenius, an analyst at Bernstein bank, told the Financial Times.

Will Monsanto keep its name?

Bayer Buys Monsanto
Has more of a ring to it, no?
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Another question is whether Bayer would keep the Monsanto name if the deal goes through.

After all, the name "Monsanto" carries a lot of baggage, much of it negative. When people express fears about corporate control of food or biotechnology, they invariably point to Monsanto. It’s widely viewed as the company that patents seeds and ruthlessly sues farmers who try to misuse them (even if the reality is considerably less sinister than the perception).

People in the company — and many crop scientists outside of it — have long seen that reputation as unfair. To them, the anti-GMO movement has spread a lot of baseless information about genetic engineering and has caricatured onto Monsanto as the face of evil. The company has tried a series of rebranding moves over the years to burnish its reputation. (Witness this Wired story: "Monsanto Is Going Organic in the Quest for the Perfect Veggie.")

Alas, none of it has flown. A telling anecdote in the New Yorker: In 2013, David Friedberg sold his innovative weather data company, the Climate Corporation, to Monsanto for $1 billion. His own father’s first reaction was: "Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?"

Given all that, Bayer may consider going all in and changing the name entirely. "It is too early to speculate about what the name of the company is going to be," Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said in an interview in May. "But let me tell you that Bayer’s name and Bayer’s reputation stand for science, innovation and an utmost level of responsibility for societal needs, and that is what we are going to leverage on, also for the combined company going forward."

Further reading

— The Wall Street Journal offers more context around flagging biotech seed sales: "Behind the Monsanto Deal, Doubts About the GMO Revolution."

—This is an excellent timeline of Monsanto's history. And a few years ago in Modern Farmer, Lessley Anderson wrote a great piece on how Monsanto became so reviled in certain corners.