In the last thirty years, the United States has experienced a whirlwind of concentration among food suppliers. This elimination of competition is an urgent problem not only because consumers are faced with higher prices and less food choices in grocery stores, but also because the largest agribusinesses on Earth (“Big Ag”), as a result of their massive economic and political power, clog up the workings of our political system to the detriment of democracy and the planet.
Big Ag’s rising profits have been shown to be a driving force behind inflationary food prices again and again. A recent analysis by the White House explained that “If rising input costs were driving rising meat prices, those profit margins would be roughly flat, because higher prices would be offset by the higher costs.”
In addition to these already egregious displays of power and control, Big Ag also destroys the planet’s natural resources, violates existing labor laws, engages in atrocious and inhumane animal processing practices, and puts small farms out of business. Both the legal and economic arrangements that enable this behavior create an unfair political economy that’s immensely profitable and partial to large agribusinesses; these forces allow massive corporations like Monsanto, Tyson, Cargill, and John Deere to largely evade antitrust scrutiny.
As a result, Big Ag players garner enormous market power and uneven political clout, positioning themselves to create even more favorable legislation with which to entrench their dominance in each sector of agriculture, from beef to farming equipment to poultry to seeds.
It Begins on the Farm
An immediate example of Big Ag’s might is in farming equipment. Before the 1930s, over 160 companies sold farm equipment in response to growing industrialization and mechanization of farming. Through industry consolidation, however, John Deere emerged as the leading supplier of agricultural machinery in the United States. Today, John Deere stands alone as the dominant player, commanding roughly 53 percent of the market for large tractors and 60 percent for combines. From 2005 to 2018, John Deere acquired a staggering twelve companies that specialized in sectors ranging from farm equipment to precision technology.
In February, the Department of Justice filed six lawsuits in an effort to crack down on Deere’s monopoly power, engaging in a right-to-repair battle in four states. The lawsuits allege that Deere has illegally attempted to control the repair of Deere equipment, such as tractors and combines, using electronic-control units. The filing contends that the farming equipment giant and its dealerships monopolize the market for repair and maintenance services by designing proprietary Deere equipment, which requires Deere-controlled software for the diagnosis and maintenance functions. That software is exclusively available to technicians authorized by Deere. This arrangement leaves many independent shops and farmers beholden to Deere-authorized vendors when repairing their equipment. In this way, Big Ag poses a sort of private tyranny over those who have to rely on their equipment to make a living, and they are largely left unaccountable to the public and consumers.
The tentacles of Big Ag reach beyond equipment into our milk and meat supply. Industry concentration in dairy has led to fewer farms and more mega-dairy operations, diminishing the profits of small family farms. The beef industry similarly has become more heavily concentrated. Today, only four firms—Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef Packing Co.—control over 70 percent of the nation’s beef supply, and they processed roughly 85 percent of cattle in the United States in 2018.
The level of concentration occurred at such a breakneck pace since the 1980s that Department of Agriculture economists characterized this wave of mergers as “merger mania,” during which concentration soared from 35.7% in 1980 to 71.6% by 1990 in the beef packing sector.
For instance, through mergers in the agriculture industry, “the four largest meatpackers have increased their share of the market from 36% to 85%, and the largest four sellers of corn seed accounted for 85% of U.S. corn seed sales in 2015, up from 60% in 2000.
Due to the resulting power over consumers and input providers, these mega-corporations are doing better than ever. The level of concentration, and the control over factory farming that it grants, are partially responsible for Tyson Foods’ beef sales jumping to $5 billion in the first quarter of 2022, lifting overall sales to $12.93 billion. Tyson Foods realized over a billion dollars in new dividends and stock buybacks. Add this to the more than $3 billion already they paid out to shareholders since the pandemic. In beef processing, corporate profits skyrocketed by $96.9 billion in the third quarter of 2021 alone.
Economic Power Translates into Political Power
Though it is hard to pinpoint a specific and clear approximation of the political power large agribusiness has achieved, each industry as a whole has immense political power resulting from their economic growth and profits from concentration. This is malfeasance in the highest order. Food monopolists and other dominant players in our agriculture system have the ability to contribute a large amount of campaign funds to key lawmakers in charge of legislating the sectors where mega corporations have a direct interest.
Farm subsidies in the United States largely support private associations and large corporations. These subsidies account for roughly 39 percent of farm income while the biggest agriculture firms continue to make record-breaking profits. The United States government gives away free money to private corporations that continue to increase their profits without contributing back into the public coffers or without providing adequate care to farm animals or adequate compensation (or safety) to the labor that generates the profit.
One example is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Researchers have long understood how clear the intent to monopolize is through the political clout of large, private trade associations, like the NCBA, which is directly paid a proportion of the proceeds from the U.S. government from every beef sale (like supermarkets steaks or hamburgers from a fast-food restaurant). In addition to lobbying for the further consolidation of the meat-processing industry, the NCBA uses these proceeds to lobby for Americans to eat more meat and to oppose district court judges who are sympathetic to animal rights.
The Social Costs Are Adding Up
Food production and industrial farming pose existential threats to critical ecosystems and rural populations, accelerating climate change by polluting and contributing massively to greenhouse gasses. The natural resources needed to sustain the increasing industrialization of our agricultural infrastructure are exhausted at the behest of large industry titans not in the least bit compelled to employ sustainable environmental practices. These effects are undesirable to everyone but to large agribusiness polluters, which perversely gain a greater capacity to pollute and contribute to climate change to a meaningful degree as they grow in scale and size.
The broader societal costs of the size, power, and dominance of food monopolies are far reaching. Economic power garnered from consolidating food industries, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, yields uneven political influence—where corporations shape laws to get enacted in their favor, which in turn garners them more control of the food system. In the legal system, the problem of agriculture monopolies cannot be adequately dealt with on purely economic grounds either. This is because of the popularized role that economic analysis plays in assessing anticompetitive harm. With its fixation on short-run consumer price effects, the current economic lens cannot fully capture the ways in which Tyson, Bayer, or Monsanto grow their market power. Like other dominant players in industries, major corporations within Big Ag also mold political outcomes in their favor to avoid critical enforcement. They achieve this by influencing the anti-monopoly policies enacted to proscribe and limit their size in the first place, positioning themselves to dictate the terms for which market activity is stimulated.
When applying the law, antitrust courts should abandon the antiquated Chicago School dogma, which naively assumes that markets are self-correcting and that consumer welfare is paramount. When it comes to assessing the true harms of food monopolies and food barons, which undermine the rights of local farming operations, antitrust authorities should instead consider a broader set of anti-monopoly goals in order to disperse power more evenly among local farming operations nationwide.
To continue to permit consolidation in the aforementioned ways is anti-democratic. A strategy to implement these tools simply requires the political will to hold Big Ag corporate titans accountable by legally compelling them to relinquish control of their hordes of wealth, industry control, and attendant political influence.
Tyler Clark is an economist working on anti-monopoly, corporate power, and antitrust research. A recent graduate of the M.S. program in economics at the University of Utah, Tyler hopes to return and pursue a JD specializing in antitrust law. You can follow him on Twitter @traptamagotchi.