What are the Top Seed Companies?

By Bhavani Prakash

Prof. Philip H. Howard, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University has created an interesting infograph on the Structure of the Seed Industry from 1996 to 2008.  Not surprisingly, it shows an oligopolistic industry with a small number of large players such as Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Limagrain-Vilmorin, Land-O’Lakes, KWS and Bayer.

As an example, the top three seed firms control 85% of the transgenic corn patents, and 70% of the non-corn transgenic patents in the US.














See the enlarged version as a pdf here or here below on Zoom.it

In his research article titled, “Visualising Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996-2008  he outlines how the commercial seed industry has consolidated in the last four decades – from what used to be small, family owned firms to mega transnational chemical or pharmaceutical corporations following waves of mergers and acquistions.

Not only is the trend accelerating, the largest firms are also strengthening the network by cross-licensing transgenic seed traits through various agreements.

Prof.  Howard, who teaches at the University’s Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies, shares 3 broad perspectives that have emerged from this disturbing trend.

1. Removal of barriers to accumulation of capital

Agriculture was traditionally a risky place to seek massive profit because of requirements of land, natural cycles and forces. With the advent of large agribusinesses, money can easily be converted to commodities, just as in a factory (although most of the costs are borne by someone else – such as the environment or people who are exposed to chemicals).

Traditionally seeds have been the biggest barrier to this profit oriented model of capital accumulation, because farmers did not have to buy these inputs year after year.  With hybrid varieties, and now genetically modified ones, there is a strong dependence created on seed companies which at once profit from seeds, and continuing purchases of inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers, and equipment.

2. Agricultural Treadmills

The farmer is constantly running on a treadmill. With increasing costs of inputs, he tries to produce more and more to get the same level of income. But if all farmers produce more, prices come down, and the individual farmer is faced with declining revenues. Some quit the farming profession altogether, which is good for those who want to take over and consolidate smaller farms to bigger ones. Farmers also become heavily dependent on costly inputs rather than being self-sufficient through seed saving, and this is leading to a loss in valuable cultural knowledge.

Photo Courtesy: Prof Philip H. Howard


3. Consolidation of agriculture

The consolidation of firms from very many small family run ones to a few large transnational ones, has led to the concentration of profits in the hands of a few. Concentration of economic power translates to political power, as these seed companies are able to lobby for even greater privileges.

Consolidation is happening a) horizontally along the same stage of the food supply chain, b) vertically by owning both biotech research and develop companies, as well as the companies that deliver these technologies and c) globally across new international markets. International trade agreements have broken down national barriers to entry, and helping these companies make inroads in several developing countries like China, Brazil and India.

How does this affect sustainable agriculture?

This trend is worrying  renewable agriculture prospects because of a number of reasons.

Firstly, while historically farmers used to save and replant for seeds, they are doing so less and less, as they tend to source new seeds from seed companies.

Secondly, more research money is pouring into seeds that can be patented, rather than improving seed varieties for easy replanting that make farmers independent.

And thirdly, it is leading to less seed diversity, because seed companies are acquiring profitable subsidiaries and eliminating unprofitable lines of business.


Developing countries are places of immense agricultural biodiversity, with millions of poor farmers dependent on self-sufficient, low-input, small landholdings based renewable agriculture. A wave of domination by seed companies has to be resisted strongly to make sure that the poorer billion of the world is to be fed without coming into the clutches of large seed firms.


Further links you may be interested in:

A talk by Vandana Shiva on Seeds:

Video link here


1. There are a lot of interesting details on the methodology used to construct the infograph and the research study itself as well as a look at the individual companies outlined earlier. Please read for further information, the document by Prof Howard here.

2. EWTT: Vandana Shiva: Traditional Knowledge, Biodiversity and Sustainable Living

3. EWTT: UN Report: Ecological Farming Can Feed The World

4. EWTT: Go GM Free in Australia

5. EWTTDr Mira Shiva: Health Effects of GM Food

6. EWTT: Lim Li Ching : GMO Free

7. EWTT: State of the World Report 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet

8. EWTT: Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi: One Farmer’s Crusade to save Indigenous Seeds

9. EWTT: Nero’s Guests and Farmer Suicides in India

10. EWTT: The Source Project

11. EWTT: India’s GM bill “Anti-People, Anti-Nature” 

12. EWTT: Better labelling of GM foods in Singapore essential






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Posted by on Sep 21 2011. Filed under Sustainable Agriculture/GMO/Organic, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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