How much is enough?

The world of global industrial agriculture is a commercial effort on a grand scale. While tempting, it really is too big a boast to suggest industrial ag might feed us all.  Clearly there are billions who feed themselves without a significant contribution from industrial ag interests.  But whether such a grandiose boast is tenable or not, industrial agriculture remains an enormous enterprise; as well it probably should be.  If you haven’t milked a cow or picked fresh produce you are easily among one of the largest majorities on this earth today.  In the US its estimated that less than 2% of the population is involved in production ag (read: farming).  Similar estimates describe agriculture in Germany, and the majority of the industrialized world.  Agriculture as an industry, however, makes up an incredible piece of our economy.  Most involved in agriculture are not working on the farm.  The little farm I brag about owning is not the main source of my daily bread – but I have milked a cow and picked fresh vegetables.  Perhaps I might consider myself somewhere between the 2% and the rest.

There are quite a few other workers in a similar place to my own. Workers in the agriculture sector who have firsthand knowledge of production ag, but are not making the majority of their income from the same.  I’m thinking here especially of colleagues who do agricultural research like plant and animal breeding, research to combat disease, to improve husbanding efforts, to improve food safety, to expand nutritional frontiers.  Many of these latter activities can be too complex to be solved by the men and women actively working their land or their flocks/herds.  The US government recognized the value of investing in research all the way back in the middle of the 19th century.  The commercialization of these research efforts has a shorter history.  Without going into the specific history of the corporatization of agricultural research in the US I do want to draw a little sketch about where some of the companies involved find themselves today.

As 2016 begins to wind down the corporate ag sector is imploding in terms of numbers of major players. The consolidation had been going on for more than a year and looks to be with us for another year or two until some regulatory interests weigh in.  If this is all news to you, then a simple online search of names like Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, or Bayer could bring you up to speed.  I personally know a handful of fine folks in all the named companies.  Indeed, I also know a fair sized group who could sport more than one of these names on their vita.  And many of these acquaintances are salt of the earth… they’re fine folks.

In October of 2015 I posted a short piece about the then announcement that Monsanto was going to lay off 2,600 employees. At about the same time Monsanto was actively looking for a takeover target . (Syngenta was the most hyped target for a Monsanto purchase at that point in time).

Most of the rationale for the massive reduction in force was because of a fall in corporate income. And from a purely capitalist perspective there was a need to realign costs with income.  Monsanto was not alone facing tight budgets [though I did secretly enjoy pillorying them for their smug justifications].  Perhaps oversimplified – but the narrative of the time (and still a fair representation of today’s situation) was that ag income was very tight due to expanded inventories of raw materials like corn, soy, and wheat.  The food shortages of 2007, 2008, with their attendant high commodity prices had already become an historical footnote.

Earlier this year Monsanto went from being a potential buyer to being a potential target.  And pending regulatory approval, Bayer Crop Science might end up owning a significant piece of what today is Monsanto.  Over a year ago one could easily find plenty of market discussion of Monsanto’s bid for Syngenta being a play for a tax inversion.

Today, if the Bayer purchase succeeds, Monsanto will have effectively backed into a tax inversion. Pretty clever, no?

merger-company-monsanto-bayer-735-350

If this gives you a headache, fear not. They’ve a solution for that as well.

But let me return to those 2,600 folks Monsanto promised to ditch last year… I know a few of them personally. Will the bleeding stop there?  Not likely.  One might reasonably presume there will be more shrinking of R&D efforts if any or all of these mega-mergers moves ahead.  Perhaps more of my colleagues will be asked to find other employment.  These are not sinister folks.  Several of the affected are highly trained professionals – in whose company I’d be proud to be included (except for the unemployed part).

I have to imagine the ag economy will rebound. Opportunities for highly trained professionals will once again return to former levels.  Further improvements in crop and livestock genetics will be found, further insights into crop and livestock management will be forthcoming.  Weather will continue to play a critical role in total crop production.  When the weather hits hardest prices will spike and incomes where there is food will be good.  On the opposite hand, when food is abundant there will be arguments against the prevailing rates of research investment.  At that point one has to wonder “How much is enough?”.  If we return to a time when anyone is hungry because we can’t produce enough food, then I’d suggest we did too little to prevent it when we had the chance.

Refugee-crisis-Europe

She was forced from her homeland. Let’s not let her starve too.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________   Bayer/Monsanto business card image credit: http://naturalsociety.com/monsanto-discussions-acquire-bayer-crop-sciences-6113/

The story in the link was posted in March of ’16. Interestingly it suggests Monsanto was pursuing the Bayer Crop Science division of Bayer.  You can hear the management of Bayer telling the Monsanto folks:  No, take two aspirin and call us in the morning.

Advertisements

5 comments

  1. Thanks for making me aware of this issue Clem. Do you have any feel for what’s happening to various smaller players–say seed companies or whatever?

    Like

  2. There are still smaller players – I work for one. And there may be opportunities for new niche players as the consolidations will drop bread crumbs from the table. You’ve given me an idea for a follow up posting.

    Thanks for stopping by and weighing in.

    Have a happy holiday!!

    Like

    1. Weighing in…or displaying manifest ignorance, but I’m happy to be an instigator. Hoppy Halidays to you as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “If we return to a time when anyone is hungry because we can’t produce enough food, then I’d suggest we did too little to prevent it when we had the chance.”

    Future food shortages seem likely, from a combination of population growth, economic growth increasing demand for meat, increased use of crops as substitutes for oil (to make plastics, lubricants, etc., even if not for fuel), negative effects of climate change (partly balanced by photosynthetic benefits of increased CO2), and depletion of groundwater, fossil fuels, and high-grade phosphate ores. But long-term trends are masked by short-term effects of year-to-year weather variation, pest outbreaks, etc.

    When food shortages hit rich countries, politicians will suddenly pump billions into agricultural “Manhattan Projects”, expecting a quick fix. But the Manhattan Project depended on past basic research in physics and on having enough expert physicists to apply that research. Both the research information and the supply of physicists had been developed over decades.

    Are we doing the research and educating the agricultural scientists we will need when food shortage becomes a global, rather than regional, crisis? I think we’ll have plenty of people who know how to sequence and modify crop genomes, but not enough people who can figure out what genetic modifications are needed, or what changes in growing methods are needed to take advantage of those modifications. In other words, not enough agronomists, broadly defined.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll agree with you in a ‘broad strokes’ way… but I think there are exemptions or tweaks I’d make to the overall thrust.

      Certainly population growth can exert extreme pressure on our resource base. Human reproductive capacity can be scary if one wants to project what might be possible. I think the tendency for populations with better health care (and with it lower levels of childhood morbidity) to slow their growth rate is encouraging.

      On the projection that increasing economic growth will have a marked effect on our inability to feed ourselves – I’m less convinced. I’m not an economist by any stretch, but in my simplistic understanding of market forces I’m inclined to believe that even with expanded economic power for more people the flight to more meat consumption will quickly fall on its face if the price of meat spikes (as it should if demand increases in the face of increasingly difficult provision of such). If I have a 100% increase in my income, but meat prices increase by 200%… what am I going to do?

      I used to share the fear that phosphorus availability would quickly become a threat. Can’t lay my fingers on it right now, but I saw a piece in the last year or so that speaks to the P deficiency matter. My take home thought after reading that paper was we do need to pay attention to our supply of P, but there are other issues more pressing for several decades to come. Not that we should kick this can down the road absent mindedly; but if the threat is measured and appreciated I think we’ll manage by the time we must. If you like I can dig around to get the specific piece that gives me this belief.

      Water in general – not only ground water – now here is something I can agree with you quite closely. And for crying out loud, we live on a water planet! More and more people are waking up to the value of water. I just wish it didn’t take such drastic conditions to get the larger public to catch on. The market could help on this matter as well – you have to have water, you don’t have to have a 74″ flat screen TV.

      Your Manhattan Project comparison does fit what I imagine we could look for if market pressures to conserve resources aren’t up to the task. And I do think we could do with more long term thinking about what sorts of human skill sets are likely to come in handy down the road.

      I’m not sure I’m as concerned as you seem to be regarding the proportion of genome modifiers vs. agronomists. That sounds a bit too academically territorial to me. I consider myself something of an agronomist, and general production principles, physiology, and pathology are central to the thinking and planning that guide my plant breeding efforts. I have spoken with several young plant scientists in the last several years and I do sense there are some who wouldn’t recognize a whole plant growing in a farm field… but I’ve met more who if they aren’t exactly field scientists today, do appreciate the difference and could quickly make a transition if needed.

      So in broad strokes, I do think we have many challenges we need to pay attention to. I think market forces will instill conservation where immediately necessary and give us some time to react. I agree that a Manhattan type knee jerk is likely – but the comparison to physics is a bit tenuous – we’ve been farming far longer than we’ve been measuring photons. The technologies available today to make modifications to our domesticate genomes are incredibly powerful when compared to what was available as recently as our own days in grad school.

      I think we should be talking to a wider audience – because I imagine there are too few who want to be ag scientists when they grow up.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: