Oxfam “Konzernatlas 2017” – Summary for English Speakers (Bookshelf Monthly #18)

WHO OWNS OUR FOOD? Facts and highlights from the Oxfam report “Multinationals Atlas 2017” for those who can’t read the German original.

Published on January 10th 2017 by Oxfam in collaboration with Germanwatch, Le monde diplomatique, the Heinrich Böll and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundations, as well as BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany), the “Konzernatlas 2017” report is not yet available in English.

The topics of the report however are really important, presented in a comprehensive and systemic way, making not just all the vicious circles visible and understandable but also presenting healthy, sustainable alternatives and ways into more diversity and independence for consumers and companies alike.

This of course made me want to share the main takeaways of the report with all of you, consumers or ethical entrepreneurs. I want to hear your thoughts, too!

If you read German, I strongly suggest you get the free Konzernatlas 2017 report and I’m looking forward to read your thoughts in the comments. Also for German speakers, check out the Oxfam blog with more info on the matter, it’s really, really worth a read!

In the following, I have translated the Konzernatlas 2017 chapter titles one by one, and am offering a short English recap of each chapter:


Page 10 History: The Trend – Global Players

Mergers, made possible my liberalisation and protectionism, characterise the food industry since the 1980s.

Western global players – many of which have created today’s system – are facing new global players from the emerging markets. Digitalisation and the big data will further shape and change the industry.

And, more than ever before in the history of humankind, problems are becoming visible that the food industry must contribute to solving: world hunger, lack of sustainability, food waste, social injustice, climate change.

With farmers being the most vulnerable part of the food industry, the challenge is in the transformation of today’s established (read: unsustainable) value chains, complete with advertising campaigns and buying and retail practices.

Page 12 Plantations: Modern-Day Large Scale Land-Holding

New multinationals arising in the southern hemisphere acquire and lease gigantic tracts of land. Their produce? Same as the established giants’: monocultures.

Land is lend to multinationals but not to cover the agricultural needs of the given country. Many multinationals operate without regulations and some are under fire for land grabbing and exploitation practices.

Page 14 Agricultural Engineering: When Tractors Go Online

The hot topic is digitalisation. But modern digital farm management and precision farming are only profitable on a (very) large scale. Few manufacturers are playing the major role in the development.

The consequence: hopes that digitalisation might help with environmental protection are not coming true if the big players only focus on an even more industrialised agriculture.

In fact, the US-American NGO ETC Group prognosticate that dominant agricultural tech companies’ capital power will enable them to take control over seeds and pesticides as well, thus letting them own even more parts of our food system.

Page 16 Water: Blue Gold in Private Ownership

The industry sees water as a valuable product that needs commercialisation. Why let the people have any rights to this precious resource if you can sell water to them instead?

Here’s where we’re at today.

Water usage is not a transparent matter; only few multinationals reveal their data. Monocultures are way less water efficient than ecological agriculture and yet it’s the independent farmers that get hurt. Regulatory projects backed by the industry suggest the establishment of so called water markets ­– monetising groundwater access.

Page 18 Fertilisers: Chemistry for the Soil

Severe environmental pollution and increasing energy consumption are not reasons enough to stop pimping, not improving though, the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilisers – the environmental impact (heavy metals, waste, groundwater contamination) is not regulated.

Page 20 Seeds and Pesticides: Seven Turn Four – An Industry Shrinks Itself Big

There were seven of them in 2014: Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, BASF and ChemChina.

Merging into four in 2017 is the plan: Bayer/ Monsanto, DuPont/ Dow, ChemChina/ Syngenta and BASF.

Harnessing their power, the multinationals can dictate anything from prices to product quality – experts see EU safety regulations at risk of being watered down.

Page 22 Animal Genetics: The Patents At The Outset

Genetically modified animals aren’t the industry’s best-sellers – yet. There are technical problems, ethical and animal welfare reasons for this.

However, the industry works on a great launch of genetically modified livestock. There are several patents for gen-edited animals and huge investments in specialised companies.

One of the possible consequences, should GM animals become our reality: virus-resistant GM-species would still carry said virus, thus not only endangering unmodified livestock but also possibly leading to measures prohibiting any non-genetically modified farm animals.

Page 24 Plant Genetics: Clash of Proteins

…and the game of words: while you might oppose GMO, but how could you oppose something as innocent and legally GMO-free as some “Genetic Editing”?

Those are the winners of the global race who keep genes of living creatures under control financially, technically and juridically.

Big data is king here: scientists say that by 2025 the mere amount of gathered genome data will surpass our space data. While most of the genome data is available online for free, one operator was caught trying to sell privileged/ premium database access to two multinationals. This could have lead to said multinationals patenting modified genes past their competition. In the focus of interest are patents on climate-genes. (Crunch the numbers: in the year 2010 262 patent families with more than 1,600 patent specifications on „climate genes“ were registered, and 2/3 of those are held by three companies – Monsanto, BASF, DuPont.)

Synthetic DNA + precision agricultural engineering = Big money. Among “synthetic biology” investors are such companies as Microsoft and Intel.

Companies fight to gain control over the novel gentech instruments, and, according to the Oxfam report, such is the scene in the moment:
ZFN (Zink Finger Nucleases) patent is licensed exclusively to Dow Chemical for crops;
TALEN (Transcription Activator-like Effector Nucleases) patent licensed to Bayer and Syngenta.

The most sought-after technology however is called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Re-peats) where the patent ownership is not clear yet. And it’s so popular for a very vital reason: US regulators have confirmed two early CRISPR plants, one mushroom and one corn variety, to not be subject to GMO controls. In fact, there is one genetically modified herbicide-tolerant colza variety labelled as “GMO free” and “non-transgenic” already in use in the USA.

Consequence – biotech giants have already convinced several governments to not limit the employment of such genetically modified organisms.

Patents + no regulations + no GMO labels + higher prices for legally “GMO-free” produce + no political control instruments left = a dream scenario for the food industry of the future?

Page 26 Raw Materials: The Agricultural Merchants’ Second Harvest

The fate of all of the world’s agricultural produce (wheat, corn, soy) lies in the hands of just four corporations. Dubbed ABCD, the four Western companies are now joined by a Chinese player. ABCD are dictating the price on the food market and are directly or indirectly co-responsible for the deforestation of the rainforest.

Page 28 Manufacturers: Brands, Markets, Manipulations

Food manufacturing: 50 % of the worldwide sales turnover belong to 50 companies. And their share is growing.

Today’s 50 food giants are not yet as powerful as their agricultural fellows, but they will be. Consequences: more processed food on the rise worldwide, more food-induced illnesses worldwide (type-2-diabetes, overweight).

And – unsurprisingly – more business with highly lucrative processed foods, fortified with proteins, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids for added and aggressively marketed “health benefits”.

Page 30 Retail: Enchained

The supermarket bliss is coming to emerging markets, making retail giants rich.

The larger the market share, the more control a retail company has over food distribution – they can achieve better conditions for higher profit margins but it’s also known that retail companies are forcing suppliers to actually pay for being sold at the company’s supermarkets, for the company’s ads and their new stores. The vicious cycle is started: the suppliers’ needs to be profitable creates workforce exploitation in the manufacturing countries and pushes independent farmers out of the market.

Page 32 World Food Affairs: No Stopping Hunger Despite All Chemical Industry

We can’t feed the world by producing more – the key factor here is the access to food, and the solution is the reduction of poverty.

Food industry is failing and will continue to fail ensuring adequate food supply to all of the planet’s population.

The food giants’ claim to feed the world by producing more is misleading.

While industrial farming indeed has lead to an increase in crops production and to the rise of available calories, it was only made possible by the deployment of highly specialised monocultures and large amounts of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Also, today’s 800 millions malnourished individuals is not a success.

The problem lies in the distribution. Today’s industrial food system seems to be supporting inequality rather than fighting poverty. Also, the fixation on number alone has lead to an enormous calorie wastage: the total global edible crop harvest of whopping 4,600 kcal per person per day sounds amazing, but – there is a net loss of 600 kcal after the harvest (includes rotten crops), retail and individual shopping habits make for a loss of another 800 kcal, and finally, 1,200 kcal are lost due to the conversion of crops to animal food. Makes a total of now only 2,000 kcal per person per day.

There is evidence for the damage industrial farming is causing to the eco systems of the world: there’s a massive progression of soil degradation (20% of agricultural land are considered damaged) and there’s the vicious cycle of the growing pesticide resistance of bugs and germs versus higher usage of newer pesticides that leads to resistance to newer pesticides and so forth.

There is also evidence for a real alternative to this: agricultural ecology.

The ecological rice cultivation methods show that diverse agricultural systems are efficient in terms of crop yield and perfectly in line with both social and natural environments.

Page 34 Alternatives: The Smallest vs. The Biggest

Working with instead of against local ecosystems is at the hearth of agroecology. With rice cultivation, this approach already proves successful globally. Interestingly, consumers can become independent, too.

The community supported agriculture model in the USA and in Europe (Germany: SoLaWi = Solidarische Landwirtschaft) offers an alternative to the supermarket system. In Europe, some 500,000 individuals are provided with food by approx. 2,800 initiatives. A growing number of weekly markets in many cities of the world does without the middlemen as well. Independent food councils worldwide work on regional programmes to strengthen local producers and to promote healthy eating habits.

Page 36 Stock Markets: Investors Look For Growth – And Don’t Care For The Land

Food speculators are becoming more active than ever before, distorting the market for funds and investors to profit. Vital for this system is industrial farming and all its global players mentioned earlier.

After the rapid food/ crop price increase between 2006 and 2008 and the 2008 financial crisis, US and EU politicians have tried – and failed – to establish stricter regulations for agriculture speculations.

Page 38 Workforce: It Has To Be Cheap, Dirt Cheap

Fair working conditions are not the reality; ideals diverge from reality with several fair/ sustainable labels.

Working right violations are the rule and not an exception.

The International Labour Organisation ILO observes since the 1980s that farmers and farm workers sink into poverty as the weakest link of the value chain, female workers being even more vulnerable. Working place safety, fair wages – nada. What about workers who organise trade unions? Can be dangerous.

And the contrast couldn’t be starker to the very well-paid jobs in the multinationals’ offices: researchers, engineers, finance, communications ans marketing professionals.

Page 40 Global Trade: Too Much Lobbying, Too Little Regulation

Multinationals define international free trade agreements to their best interest. State regulations have been consistently weakened since the 1980s.

No big surprise – at the losing end are the farmers, the independent growers and smaller regional contractors.

Page 42 Lobby: Public Authorities Under Pressure

The growing conflict between the chemical companies’ and big agribusiness’ lobby vs. societal and activist discontent puts governments under pressure.

Scandals and insecurities related to our food – resistance to antibiotics, GMO, herbicides and microplastics found in food, glyphosate, pyrrolizidine alkaloids in teas – spark the consumers’ interest in food topics and make them question the vested interests and the industry-friendly regulations.

Page 44 Rules: Market Power and Human Rights

Human rights violations make headlines in the context of multinational companies with increasing frequency. Voluntary measures are not enough anymore; there is a need for regulations.

There is also a need for a legal assistance so that victims of human rights violations can file lawsuits across borders.

Page 46 Reactions: Protest, Boycott, Resistance

In more and more countries citizens express their growing discontent with governments and multinational companies, calling out single big players on their actions and the politicians on their inability to genuinely regulate.

Singular multinationals have image problems with a four decade history. Watchdogs like Corporate Europe Observatory or Lobbycontrol keep revealing the food industry lobbying for research budgets, for subsidies. And because the industry operates with no transparency, watchdogs and activists rely on whistle-blowers – who in turn operate with no legal protection.

Silver lining: activists and resisters successfully collaborate across the continents; the civil society demands more controls and transparency (visible for example during CETA and TTIP protests).


I’ve tried to keep the Oxfam Report summary as brief as possible, and have kept my commentary out of it completely, but if you want more background on any of those chapters, or my opinion, or would like to read more on a specific topic, you’re very welcome to let me know in the comments or using the contact form.


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