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7-Misc: UK agricultural co-op links up with US biotech companies

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US corporate link up with UK co-op rings GM alarm bells

Opening the door to seed-market control

One of the UK's largest agricultural co-operatives has announced agreement 'in principle' for a joint venture with a major American agrochemical and seed distributor. The projected new company will supply seed to farmers in the south of England, the West Country and the south Midlands. It is feared that the new venture could pose a threat to the long term availability of GM-free seed in the UK.

Multinational agrochemical businesses are now investing heavily in the genetic engineering ('biotechnology') of agricultural crops, and as a result need access to existing seed businesses across the globe both to apply their techniques to existing agricultural plant varieties[1] and to facilitate the aggressive marketing and distribution of their biotech products to farmers worldwide.

The new venture in the UK will be known simply as SCATS Agriseeds Ltd[2]. It involves a 50-50 deal between Southern Counties Agricultural Trading Society (SCATS) and United Agri Products (UAP). UAP is the 'crop protection' business of the worryingly named 'ConAgra', (<> a publicly quoted US multinational agribusiness with a turnover of $24 billion in 1997.

ConAgra, together with Monsanto/Cargill and Novartis, was recently identified, in a University of Missouri study on behalf of the National Farmers Union in America, as an 'agribusiness goliath' - one of the big alliances, formed through links such as joint ventures, which are positioning themselves to dominate world food production at the expense of both farmers and consumers.[3]

In announcing the deal in a letter to its customers SCATS explain their decision by saying: "Technological changes in seed production are being driven by the agro-chemical manufacturers who now own many of the plant breeders."[4]

ConAgra lists UAP's agricultural distribution services as including, along with seeds and agrochemicals: "Advanced biotechnology products and services" [5]

UAP (<> says it "works cooperatively with ConAgra to aggressively develop global agricultural business relationships, focusing efforts in nations where our expertise and business relationships facilitate entry into new markets."

The fact that an important UK seed business is now becoming involved in a direct relationship with a major distributor for large agricultural genetic engineering companies is a matter of considerable concern, as it could jeopardise the long-term availability of non-genetically modified seeds.

Whether or not SCATS (<> are aware of them, the reasons why their non-GM seed supplies could be under threat are as follows:

1. Biotechnology companies prefer to issue GM seeds because they are subject to patent, enabling them to apply additional contractual obligations on farmers (such as insisting on the purchase of only their chemicals for use on the crop).

2. Farmers are not allowed to save their own seed from GM crops, and so have to go back to the seed house for on-going supplies whether they want to or not. This gives the biotechnology companies much greater control over seed prices.

3. Independent trials in both the US and the UK show that genetically engineered crops are in fact often producing lower yields than conventional varieties (more information available at our web site>

Biotechnology companies, therefore, do not like having these crops compared with superior performing traditional varieties. Control of existing seed houses enables such comparisons to be hidden by halting or slowing development of non-engineered varieties.

Agribusiness giant Novartis has already threatened to withdraw the supply of non-GM sugar beet seed to the Republic of Ireland in the face of resistance to the development of GM varieties, warning: "Given the importance of Novartis on the Irish market, this would have serious implications for the Irish sugar beet industry." (see

Ironically, SCATS was formed in 1907 by a small group of farmers to combat price rings in local livestock markets. Jonathan Matthews of NGIN commented, "It's quite extraordinary that a co-operative that was formed to protect farmers from sharp practice, could now unwittingly serve as a conduit for seed-market control. As far as farmers are concerned, it looks like David just teamed up with Goliath! "

Media contact:

Jonathan Matthews - Tel: 01603 624021/01603 625188 (home) NGIN - Norfolk Genetic Information Network 26 Pottergate Norwich NR2 1DX Fax: 01603 766552 E-mail: Website:>

SCATS can be contacted on 01962 875200. More information on the new SCATS deal is also available at


[1] In 1998 the biotechnology giant Monsanto spent $6 billion dollars on seed businesses around the world including the purchase of the UK's Plant Breeding International Cambridge Ltd. from Unilever.

[2] It will operate from SCATS' existing Larkwhistle Arable Centre and seed plant at Micheldever, Hampshire. It will commence trading in spring '99.

[3] In the University of Missouri study on behalf of America’s National Farmers Union, ConAgra was identified as being one of three food "clusters" which will dominate world food production in the future, "deciding who eats and reducing farmers to day laborers". According to a Reuters report (WASHINGTON, Feb 11th 1999), the NFU says their study shows these clusters are expected to "grow ever-bigger and intertwine to direct each step of the food chain from seed to the grocery shelf." Such "clusters" according to the report are formed through joint ventures, partnerships, acquisitions, contracts and side agreements. These links can involve even comparatively small operations. The other two "clusters" identified in the report, in addition to Conagra, are centered on Cargill/Monsanto and Novartis. Copies of the Reuters report available.

[4] Copy available. In the letter SCATS' chairman Andrew Christie-Miller goes on to say: "It is therefore essential that SCATS has a joint venture with an international agrochemical distributor such as UAP, which has proven and established relationships with all the key manufacturers."

[5] The full lists is as follows: *Crop protection chemicals *Fertilizer products *Seeds *Pesticides *Advanced biotechnology products and services 

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
-| phone: #49-551-7700027
-| fax  : #49-551-7701672
-| email:

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