In the last quarter of the 20th century, the world’s huge chemical companies saw a problem – the market for their pesticides was inevitably going to shrink as the world became more concerned with the environment. So, they went looking for new sources of profit and found them in seed companies. It was a marriage made in corporate-boardroom-heaven especially as biotechnology produced GMO seeds that were married to the specific herbicides they were designed to tolerate.
Soon, multinational chemical companies owned almost all of the traditional plant breeders. For instance –
- Pioneer Hi-Bred was the first company to breed and market hybrid seed corn in 1926. It was founded in Iowa by Henry A. Wallace who went on to by Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President during the Depression. In 1999, the company merged with the chemical giant DuPont.
- Syngenta Global is a multinational corporation that has gone through a dizzying process of mergers and acquisitions, and its corporate history goes back 250 years. The oldest company in its family tree is Geigy, founded in 1758, followed by Sandoz, Ciba, and ICI. Along the way, scientists in these parent companies discovered DDT, 2, 4-D, Atrazine, and paraquat. To make a long story short, all of these parent companies have merged or been acquired, along with Astra and Zeneca and Novartis and Stauffer. Finally, in 2000, the latest corporate incarnation emerged known as Syngenta and it concentrated on agricultural business only. Along the way, they have acquired some venerable seed brands like Garst, Funk, Rogers, Northrup King, Zeneca, Golden Harvest and Advanta BV. They also own seed companies in China and flower companies in Europe.
- Monsanto began as a chemical company in 1901 manufacturing and marketing saccharine. In 1960, they established an agricultural division and marketed various pesticides. In 1976, the developed Roundup herbicide. In 1982, they were the first commercial company to genetically modify a plant cell. That same year, they started buying seed companies. From the oldest to the newest, the acquisitions include Jacob Hartz, Corn States Hybrid, Holden’s Foundations Seeds, Asgrow Agronomics, DeKalb Genetics, Wilson, Midwest Genetics, Crows Hybrid, Specialty Hybrids, Stone Seeds, Trelay Seeds, Stewart Seeds, Fontanelle Hybrids, NC+ Hybrids, Seminis vegetables, Campbell Seeds, Gold County, Trisler Seeds, Kruger Seeds, Sieben Hybrids, Diener Seeds, De Ruiter Seeds in the Netherlands, Semillas Cristiani Burkard (SCB) in Guatemala, and Aly Participacoes Ltda., a sugarcane and biotech company in Brazil.
- Dow AgroSciences was formed in 1950 as the agricultural unit of Dow Chemical Company. It acquired the Mycogen biotech seed company along with Cargill Hybrid Seeds and several Brazilian seed companies.
Biotechnology has married the chemistry of pesticides with the genetics of crops, and so it’s not surprising that the corporate giants have moved to protect their profits by buying the companies that produce the seeds. In the future, they may make more and more of their profits from licensing their patented genes and technology to other companies.