What happens when a few big companies control the world’s food production?

When Terry Boehm started farming 35 years ago, he could choose from more than 100 varieties of canola seeds to plant on his farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. These days, only a handful of selections remain. After decades of consolidation in the agri-food business, farmers have been left with a dwindling number of companies to turn to for necessities such as seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. But this past year’s flurry of mergers – most notably a proposed $66-billion (U.S.) Bayer-Monsanto deal this week that would create the world’s largest agribusiness – would reduce that number even further, raising fresh concerns about concentrating global food production in even fewer hands. “Clearly, the focus for a long time has been greater and greater control of seeds,” said Mr. Boehm. “And if you control the seed, you control the food system. And you control people, ultimately.”

Just 20 years ago, about 600 companies were manufacturing seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, according to the watchdog ETC Group. Now, the majority of those products are made by just six major companies. That number could fall to three or four, depending on whether the Bayer-Monsanto deal and another proposed merger, between Dow Chemical Co. and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., are approved.

For farmers like Mr. Boehm, his first concern is that fewer competitors could mean higher prices. He also worries about the consequences of limiting product options further. Mr. Boehm chooses to grow only non-genetically modified products on his 4,000-acre grain farm, saving and replanting seeds to use year after year. Occasionally, he purchases “conventional,” or non-GMO seeds from producers. But over the years, fewer and fewer of these non-GMO options have remained, as those companies are purchased by larger ones like Monsanto Co.

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