David Boyle (New Economics Foundation) on monopoly: “the threat that comes to our economy and well-being from allowing companies to build up a stranglehold on their market”. He asks:
Why don’t they get it?
Environment minister Owen Paterson is an intelligent enough fellow, yet he ranted on this week about opponents to GM crops as “wicked” and as a “dark shadow”. For a moment it appeared that he didn’t understand what the objection is.
So in case he is reading this (hello, Owen!), here is a guide to what the economic objections are to GM crops as the only way to feed the world:
- The evidence that monoculture is the only way to feed a growing population depends on peculiar, monocultural surveys of crop growing in developing countries, which ignore everything unless they are the main product of any farm – giving an agri-business of view of what is actually the sheer diversity of small farms, and encouraging a wrong-headed and large-scale solution.
- Most evidence (Amartya Sen, for example) also suggests that small-scale farming is considerably more efficient than large-scale farming, certainly when it comes to how much is produced on marginal land.
- Diverse, small-scale farming – on which so many lives depend – becomes increasingly difficult if farmers can’t share seeds, which they are forbidden to do using GM technology, driving many into ruinous debt.
- Ten companies already control three quarters of the global seed market. Monopolies drive up costs. Costs create poverty. Poverty creates poor diets and vitamin deficiencies that so-called ‘golden rice’ is supposed to put right.
The technology itself may be healthy enough – I don’t know, I’m not a scientist – but this isn’t about science; it is about economics and the likely effect of increasing the power of the seed company oligopoly on the world market.
A generation ago, it would have been obvious – partly because the Liberal warning against monopoly was stronger – that this would have increased poverty. Why not now?
Why do politicians ignore monopoly in the energy market (but fiddle about trying to reduce green levies)? Why do they ignore monopoly in the media market (but fiddle about trying to regulate)?
Why don’t they see that it was Amazon and Google, two semi-monopolies, which failed to respond to their criticism about paying tax – and Starbucks (not a monopoly) which did respond?
But if I’m honest, I may have a clue about the answer. Conservatives welcome monopolies if they have been legitimately created, because they fetishise the laws of the market, even when markets fail . . .
Do we really believe that handing ownership of seed technology to a handful of global corporations will make them easier to control?
If GM is ever going to work, it has to create more competition in the market, not less – and more diversity, not less. It has to specifically help small farmers. If it helps small farmers now, then it does so despite the growing monopoly involved, not because of it.
Now, Owen, am I really wicked to say that?