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The Brand X elevator and corporate control of the food supply

The potential for contracted acres to be linked to herbicide and fertilizer purchases as well as point of delivery was already there

When Manitoba Pool Elevators and the Alberta Wheat Pool amalgamated in 1998 to become Agricore, I joked at the local watering hole that we really needed to invent an elevator sign that was Velcro backed.

Even then, it was apparent that there was a lot of work involved in rebranding trade names on very tall buildings, but I had no idea how prophetic that comment was. I had no idea just how many corporate mergers were about to happen, or how few elevators we would have left standing on the Prairie horizon.

Agricore was later overtaken by United Grain Growers to become Agricore United, and swallowed again by Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 2007 to become Viterra. This month, shareholders will decide whether or not to accept a bid by multinational Glencore to change the corporate banners one more time through an unholy alliance with James Richardson International.

In just 14 years, the western Canadian grain industry has gone from farmer-owned co-operatives to potential foreign corporate control.

Is this the final saga in the tale of elevator identity crisis? Not likely. If you recall back in 2006, it was James Richardson International that began the bidding on Agricore United in an attempt to create Richardson Agricore and that didn’t work. As they say, the show ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and I don’t hear any sopranos in the wings just yet.

Given the federal government’s willingness to sell off Canadian agriculture and castigate the last vestiges of farmer control within the CWB, any blocking of a foreign takeover bid at the federal level is unlikely. Odd that potash needs to be protected as a basic building block of the Canadian food chain, but cereal grains are not.

What does have many industry watchers scratching their heads, however, is the quietness of the big ABCD. Otherwise known as Archer Daniel Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Lois Dreyfus, these four companies control the majority of the grain trade in non-state-controlled areas of the world. How they will react to the corporate wooing of Glencore is yet to be seen, but rest assured that they are paying attention.

Another tenuous link not getting a lot of attention is the connection between fuel and food. The grains being used for ethanol and biofuels may be obvious, what is less obvious is the trail of money being created by oil-producing corporations and the direction global corporate amalgamations is taking us. Viterra’s takeover of Imperial Oil’s Prairie distribution system may have been more than an omen.

The potential for contracted acres to be linked to herbicide and fertilizer purchases as well as point of delivery was already there, and as evidenced by some of Viterra’s contracts, used. We could now see new varieties being linked to fuel supply as well.

Whether we look at pharmaceuticals, herbicides, seed companies, fertilizer companies or grain buyers, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the farmers’ choices are being dominated by a small number of very large and powerful players. Ever since Bill Gates taught the world that the way to riches is by monopolizing markets, not competing, the corporate landscape has been riddled with corporate takeovers and amalgamations.

The question now is just how that will play out on a global scale. Like a corporate game of Risk (I really should have invented that with the Velcro elevator signs), money will determine who wins world dominance. If oil-producing companies are the ones with the money, is it only a matter of time before they purchase the food supply network as well?

Some people will tell you that corporate control of the food chain is a good thing. It will be a lean, mean delivery machine that the old co-ops could not compete against. Others will tell you that it is the beginning of the end for food sovereignty, and that farmers have lost their leverage in the market, which will cost them their share of the profits.

Regardless of where you see yourself on the political scale, I can’t help but wonder where the next generation of corporate executives will come from.

Will the people who believe the market will solve its own problems in the most efficient way possible, still believe that, if our food supply chain is controlled by the OPEC nations?

Makes you wonder just how many of those Velcro signs I could have sold.

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