Agriculture is an arena of rampant monopolization of agricultural products, markets and gene pools.
Business reports for 2014 indicate three US companies (Tyson, Cargill and JBS Swift) control 90 percent of domestic beef processing and wholesaling. These same three companies, along with Smithfield, control 66 percent of the pork available to consumers.
Tyson, and three other companies oversee the production and marketing of 60 percent of the poultry available to consumers. Three corporate entities dominate the sale of dairy products in much of the US.
Four companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow) command 80 percent of the US corn seed market and 70 percent of the soybean seed business, according to an October 4, 2013 article in Food Democracy Now.
A 2012 Heritage Farm Companion magazine article indicated ten companies, including the US “big four,” control three quarters of worldwide commercial seed sales.
Monopolization encourages monocultures. In 2013, for example, 93 percent of soybean seeds planted in the US were genetically modified organisms (GMOs), while 90 percent of planted corn was GMOs and over 90 percent of cotton, sugarbeet and canola seeds were GMOs, according to GMO-Compass.
Monocultures aim to yield uniform products. Monopolies specialize in certain products, market control, undercutting or stifling competition any way possible, and making profits.
This specificity in production of food, processing and marketing is nonetheless spawning new diversity in all aspects of food production, including consumer demand, and even the survival of pests such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains and glyphosate-resistant weeds.
The new diversity should not be surprising. A key law of nature is that diversity favors survivability.
Similarly, a key principle of General Systems Theory is the more solutions that are available to solve a problem, the greater the likelihood the best solution will emerge.
So, it can be expected that while the use of glyphosate-resistant seeds makes weed control in crop fields easier in some ways, the survival of weeds that tolerate the herbicide also is favored.
Nature likes diversity. Prairie ecosystems that remain in their native state contain a rich variety of plants, insects, animals and organisms of many kinds.
These prairies are more likely to adapt to threats such as pests and unusual weather conditions than a field planted to a single crop.
Crossbred animals that have two parents with different genetic makeups within the same species usually thrive better than animals that have been selected to maximize only certain traits.
Humans also like diversity. Given a choice, most people prefer variety in their foods and experiences over the same foods and activities.
Most consumers prefer a broad range of options in their diet, which may help explain why heritage seeds, farmers markets, and retail grocers that offer a multitude of choices of similar products in their stores are becoming ever more popular.
The preference for diversity contributes to the popularity of community supported agriculture, which offers customers seasonal variety in their food choices. It also is a factor that increases the likelihood that organic food production is here to stay.
People benefit from diversity in many ways. For example, farm children who have been exposed to a variety of pollens and microbes of all sorts have fewer allergies than children who are protected from these substances by living indoors and using antiseptics frequently.
The principle is further illustrated by how most workers prefer jobs that do not involve repetitive completion of the same task. A variety of employment experiences is more stimulating and fun.
We might not be thinking about the laws of nature when we make choices that increase our options, but that is what is going on. We humans have a propensity to seek diversity because it increases our probability of surviving as a species.
“We can’t control whole systems,” says distinguished Iowa State University professor and agricultural ethicist, Frederick Kirschenmann, in Cultivating an Ecological Conscience. He goes on to say “our world is a complex adaptive system that is interconnected, interdependent, and constantly changing.”
Diversity is key to resilience, Kirschenmann proposes, and resilience is necessary for survival. Unless people, crops, livestock, food production and systems in general are adaptable, they are ultimately doomed to extinction.
So, it’s not unusual that monocultures and monopolies generate the need for diversity even though their aim is to produce ever more of the same.
The world would be a mundane and unhealthy place without diversity and we can be glad for diversity’s contribution to our agricultural livelihoods, our production of essential food, fiber and fuel, and ultimately our survival.
Monocultures and monopolies have the upper hand over sustainable diversity in agribusiness currently. Wealthy companies and individuals have too much influence over policy makers and governmental rules.
One approach cannot get out of control in favor of the other.
This principle needs to be translated into policies and laws that promote diverse alternative approaches to agriculture as well as an intensive industrial approach. The survival platform should be equal for both approaches.
Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.