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Oligopoly, Inc. Concentration in Corporate Power: 2003

(Monday, Dec. 8, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- From a communique by ETC Group

Issue: Over half of the world's 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs), not nations.(1) TNCs have unprecedented power to shape social, economic and trade policies. Corporate hegemony is usurping the role and responsibilities of national governments, threatening democracy and human rights. Over the past two decades ETC Group (formerly as RAFI) has monitored corporate power and trends in the "life sciences." Consolidation, technological convergence and non-merger corporate alliances are among the trends examined in this issue of ETC Communiqué.


  • The top 10 companies control an estimated 53% market share of the world’s leading 118 drug firms. BIOTECH & GENOMICS:
  • The top 10 firms account for 54% of the biotech sectors’ $42,000 million ($42 billion) revenues. (All currency in US$ dollars.) ANIMAL PHARMA:
  • The top 10 companies control 62% of the $13,400 million world market. SEEDS:
  • The top 10 companies control one-third of the $23,300 million commercial seed market.


  • The top 10 firms control 80% of the $27,800 million global pesticide market. FOOD RETAIL:
  • The top 10 control 57% of the total sales of the world’s leading 30 food retailers.


  • The top 10 companies account for 37% of the revenues earned by the world’s top 100 food and beverage companies; the top 20 account for 53% of the top 100’s total. NANOTECH: Public & private sector investment in nanotechnology is an estimated $5,000-$6,000 million per annum.

Impact: Over the past two years, high-profile corporate crimes (e.g., Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International) have brought to light outrageous examples of systemic fraud, corruption and greed. The corruption is so widespread that The Washington Post offers an on-line photo gallery called "Corporations Gone Awry" where viewers can see business-suited CEOs on their way to court, or to jail.(2) In the absence of challenges to corporate hegemony, however, reform of corporate governance is focused on individual "bad guys" and meaningful reform remains a distant mirage. Transnational firms continue to overwhelm governments and subvert national sovereignty. When governments serve corporate interests rather than the interests of citizens, democracy is undermined, diversity is destroyed and human rights are jeopardized.

Players: This Communiqué provides a sector-by-sector analysis of the life sciences industry, including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, genomics, seeds and agrochemicals. Moving higher up the food chain, we also examine the world’s largest food & beverage processors and the mega-grocery retailers. This year ETC Group expands its analysis to include nanotechnology, the newest sector of the life sciences industry.

Policy/Fora: Corporate consolidation and converging technologies are driving economic, social and political issues that range far beyond the borders of any single country. The international community – through the United Nations – must have the capacity to monitor and regulate corporate governance. Beyond governance, the international community must create the capacity to track, evaluate and accept or reject new technologies and their products through an International Convention on the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT).

Consolidation, Convergence and Cooperation: For the past two decades ETC Group (as RAFI until mid-2001) has monitored trends in corporate power and the so-called life sciences industry. In earlier reports we noted that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between industry sectors. Today, the boundaries between seeds and agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, genomics and biotech continue to blur.

After decades of mergers and acquisitions, extraordinarily powerful corporations are using new tools to expand geographically and to reinforce oligopolistic control of markets. In a world where a handful of global technopolies dominate, patents become less relevant because other tools of monopoly are cheaper and more far-reaching. Some corporations are eschewing the merger and acquisition strategy in favor of alliances and "non-merger mergers." As one industry analyst notes: "Cooperation is becoming as common as competition among the industry’s leading corporations."(3) In other words, it can be far more profitable for companies to cross-license technologies and bury the patent-litigation hatchet in order to create "global technology cartels" that operate below the radar screen of anti-trust regulators.(4)

Today we are witnessing not only corporate convergence, but also technological convergence. In the 1990s, for example, the Gene Giants combined molecular biology and information technologies to create a new platform for developing drugs, agrochemicals, plant breeding, food and more based on genomics research. Today, within the field of nanotechnology, the quest to integrate science and technology is taking a giant step down – from genomes to atoms.

Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter at the level of atoms and molecules, the building blocks of the entire natural world. Whereas biotechnology gave us the tools to break the species barrier (to transfer DNA to and from unrelated organisms), nanotechnology enables scientists to shatter the barrier between living and non-living. At the nanoscale the same atoms can be rearranged to construct a gene (the basic unit of genetic code) or to construct a bit (the basic unit of digital information) or to construct a neuron (the basic unit of brain function). Because of this "material unity at the nano-scale," the investment in nanotech R&D is not limited to life industry players and nanotech is attracting more public funding than any single area of technology.(5) Nanotech blurs the boundaries between all industry sectors. The world’s largest companies – from military, mining and manufacturing to energy and electronics, to food processing and chemicals are all major players. (See chart, "Multinational Matter Moguls" on p. 12.)

Today, transnational corporations often have revenues far exceeding the total GDP of the countries where they do business. Fifty-one of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations. Of the world’s 50 largest economies, 14 are corporations (28%). Last year Wal-Mart broke into the world’s top 20 economic entities, a hair behind Belgium, but well ahead of Sweden. The Home Depot, a hardware and building-supply retail store, is a bigger economic entity than New Zealand. Of the oil-rich countries in the Middle East, only Saudi Arabia and Iran made it into the top 100, but six oil companies appear on the list.

Combined sales of the world’s 200 largest corporations accounted for 29% of world economic activity in 2002, but the top 200 corporations provide only a tiny fraction of the world’s jobs.(6) In 2002, the top 200 multinational firms employed less than 1% (0.9%) of the world’s workforce.(7) Combined sales of the world’s top 500 corporations in 2002 were equivalent to 43% of the world’s GDP.(8) These companies collectively employed only 1.6% of the world’s workforce.(9)

Trends in corporate concentration are mirrored by growing disparities between rich and poor, both within and between OECD nations and the South.

  • Though not an adequate measure of poverty, more than 1.2 billion people—one in every five on Earth—survive on less than $1 a day.(10)
  • Overseas Development Assistance (foreign aid to poor nations) totals approximately $50,000 million per year worldwide. By contrast, global military expenditures in 2002 were estimated to be at least $700,000 million.(11)
  • OECD countries provide more than $300,000 million in agricultural subsidies each year. Subsidies to the US cotton industry equal more than triple the amount of US government aid to sub-Saharan Africa.(12)
  • At the end of 2002, the number of jobless people in the formal sector worldwide reached a record high of 180 million, and the situation is "deteriorating dramatically," warned Juan Somavia, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization.(13) The ILO’s unemployment statistics do not include the informal sector and the "working poor" who live on $1 or less a day (again, a less than perfect measurement of poverty).

    To see the full report, go to http://www.etcgroup.org/article.asp?newsid=420