'Big Ag' may resonate with activists, but what does it really mean?

When opponents to the first wave of genetically modified crops and foods started objecting, one major focus was on the corporations behind innovations like Bt corn or Roundup Ready soybeans.

A term that was (and is) often bandied about is “Big Ag.” It’s become an all-encompassing term to describe a world in which all farms are owned by major corporations, which also control the nation’s (if not the world’s) supply of seeds, plants, food, machinery and land. However, it is not entirely clear that this world actually exists.

On one hand, GMO-opposition groups like Greenpeace point to “Big Ag” as the consolidation of farming into corporations that, among other things, are forcing transgenic and other modified foods upon us:

Industrial ag is a system with an expiration date. It’s only a few decades old but just start adding up the environmental costs we are incurring by his broken system. More and more polluted waterways, clear-cut forests, inhumane treatment of livestock and megatons of greenhouse gases. It’s quite simply unsustainable. Thousands of workers in this industrial farming system see what's going on. They are on the frontline witnessing the havoc caused by this system run amok. Field workers are forced to spray unnecessary toxic chemicals on their crops. Giant corporations sue small farms when patented GMO seeds accidentally blow into their fields.

On the other hand, some groups, like this one, call themselves “Big Ag,” and pass information (and advertising of equipment) that’s designed for large-scale farming:

The term Big Ag means different things to different people. The Big Ag catalog… is delivered only to large-acre producers and features larger equipment and products necessary to run commercial operations.

The USDA says 97 percent of farms in the U.S. are family owned. And the average size of a U.S. farm is less than a thousand acres. So, where are we? Is there a Big Ag out there?

Farming—and all the economic activity around it—started growing long before we knew what DNA looked like. Since 1900, and especially since the end of World War II, agricultural has been transformed on nearly every level, according to the USDA:

  • In 1900, 41 percent of the country’s workforce was in agriculture. By 2002, it was 1.9 percent.
  • At the same time, the average farm size has risen from about 150 acres to more than 500 acres, and the number of farms has dropped, from about 6,500 to about 2,000.
  • Farms became more specialized, raising one or two commodities today, compared to raising about five per farm in 1900.
  • The amount of land farmed has not changed much, indicating an increase in production and market efficiency and reduced risk of depending on just one or two crops.

big ag 12/7/17-2A number of things brought this about:

First, technological changes made these efficiencies possible. Mechanization was one, as the number of tractors, for example, jumped from less than a million in 1930 to just shy of five million in 1960.

Second (and perhaps most important), there was the Green Revolution. Most often attributed to the work of Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, who worked improving corn harvests in Mexico and other improvements in the Philippines and Pakistan. This movement started in the mid-20th century and introduced greater crop yields through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as more advanced crop breeding techniques.

Third, price stability made farming less risky. As any farmer knows, there’s no such thing as risk-free farming, but farm prices went through roller-coaster highs and lows in the 1920's and 1930's. New Deal reforms starting in the 1930's helped control prices by controlling farming outputs, including subsidies to reduce planting.

So, by the end of World War II, things were ripe for growing and thus productivity grew by 40 percent from 1950 to 1970.

And this is where the corporate part of “Big Ag” starts to appear. Some writers like Tom Philpott of Mother Jones and other activists look at the “corporatization” of farming as starting with a now-obscure Agricultural Secretary—with the unfortunate name of Butz. Earl Butz served Presidents Nixon and Ford as Agricultural secretary, and he’s famous for saying “get big or get out,” farming “fencerow to fencerow”, and otherwise getting farmers to become as large-scale as possible (he’s also known for saying some other things, but you can just Google those).

But consolidation of farms and farming services, as we’ve seen, started long before Earl Butz raised his right hand to take the oath of office. Farmers started planting more because they could make more money, and they needed help from bigger suppliers. So, today, we see a handful of major corporations that supply the inputs and outputs for farms: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Bayer, and BASF top the list, which also include a few newer companies from Eastern Europe and South America.

For farmers, while 97 percent of farms are small, family run operations, the economic value from all our farms come from a very small percentage of larger operations. This is also a result of farming consolidation and concentration on one or two crops we see today. And these operations can’t rely on a dozen small seed companies or six tractor manufacturers.

These waves of consolidation have good and bad sites. As Gary Truitt recently wrote in Hoosier Ag Today:

Farmers are demanding more integration between their seed, chemical, mechanical, and big data products. Companies who can do this will have a competitive advantage.Farmers will need to have a pipeline of innovation going forward to meet the demands of the world food market and of the changing environment. Only having a few big players can provide this innovation, yet it can also lead to the stifling of invasion.

As anti-GMO groups like Cornucopia Institute have pointed out, there isn't just a Big Ag now, there’s also a “Big Organic,” as that industry has consolidated, too. Big farms can be organic, just as much as small ones. One ironic side effect of the consolidation of agriculture, whether it be GM, conventional, organic, is that the labor savings from the past 60 years have given us the time to argue about it.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield.



  • Wackes Seppi

    “the number of farms has dropped, from about 6,500 to about 2,000”

    Something wrong here.

    • Stuart M.

      USDA said in 2007 there were 2.2 million farms in America.

  • Stuart M.

    Can someone tell me what “the stifling of invasion” means? The original article also says it. This is a typo taking on a life of its own.

    • Farmer with a Dell

      Noticed the same thing, Stuart. Guess they meant ‘invention’, suggesting commercialization of sophisticated bundled ag products and services by the dreaded “BigAg” somehow precludes new thinking or new products/services. At least, that seems to be the common urban myth.

      I’m not convinced that is true, necessarily. There’s always interest and market for a better mousetrap, but the dreaded “BigAg” product/service packages are a pretty tough standard to live up to, much less to beat. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just means to succeed in the limelight anyone will have to assemble a crack team of development, manufacturing, marketing and on-site consulting talent. There still is plenty of room for individuals and small work groups to develop novel concepts and prototype products/services, patent or copyright those and sell them to capable “BigAg” for incorporation into a packaged roll-out.

      Land grant universities used to play this exact role, as did USDA research units. University extension services also played a significant role. But that legacy of public sector research and support is but a dim memory — university laboratories and extension services have devolved into useless little political sideshows, staffed with some of the most myopic and truly inept scientific minds of our age. It’s a shame, really.

      The important work of driving progress in agriculture has fallen to the private sector, hence the evolution of “BigAg” outfits with professional staff rivaling any of the big universities in their heyday. I think it is remarkable there are so many “BigAg” players — 5 or 6 seems to be a number sufficient to spur competitive innovation and grudgingly acceptable pricing (I’m a notorious cheapskate). How many more competent ag players could there be under the circumstances? Only 1% of our populations are farmers who actually purchase these products/services. It’s not like automobile manufacturing where upwards of 100% are customers…and then there are only 3 domestic “BigAuto” giants and another 4 – 6 serious foreign competitors (and some of those are merged up behind the scenes). Why are these “concerned” complainers about “BigAg” not bemoaning the fact your neighbor or mine is precluded from inventing a new car, manufacturing it in his garage and selling it to an appreciative world? Wouldn’t this be the only way to have a better, cleaner, safer, cheaper car by the vacant logic of the anti-agriculture cranks? Is there a double standard for acknowledging the practicality and advisability of such a wetdream? Why is “BigAg” singled out?

      • Roy Williams

        Farmer, You are spot-on about the “space” available to large corporations. Agriculture is no different than any other business – going forward, either get big, or find a profitable niche, or get out. Earl Butz was only stating the obvious.
        Being part of the University Research Establishment, I totally disagree with your analysis of same. Yes, there is work being done that, right now, we can’t see what good it does. Keep in mind the history of the discovery of CRISPR: some research personnel at a “Big Ag” lab first noticed “CRISPRs” in the 1980’s – did not pursue it – someone else noted them again about a decade later, and then, in 2011 someone “put the puzzle together”. I’ll speculate that if it had been a well-funded University lab, or HHMI lab that had made the initial observation in the ’80’s, rather than some “we need a product next year” driven people in a corporate lab, genetic engineering and most of molecular biology (and drug discovery) would be 20 years ahead of where we are.
        Yes, there is an issue with un-reproducible results, but that is an issue that is being addressed – slowly. Another issue is that most funding agencies want “incremental science”: I’ll provide funding for work that is “certain” to produce a result. The reality of molecular biology research is that we are probably past any “fundamental” discovery. (CRISPR is sure to be a “game changer”, but it is not “fundamental” – it is just one more example (of many) of bacteria being way more elegantly constructed than anyone gave them credit for a few years ago. (We have so many useful tools in molecular biology, and drugs, that came from bacteria.) So, most research is a matter of slogging through a mess of details to be able to draw the next “new” line or the next “new” enzyme on the giant wall chart of metabolic pathways. Is any one of those “new” pathways game changing? No, not likely. Will any one of those provide some important “key” to new drugs or new ag chemicals, or whatever? Probably not, but maybe. Bottom line is that much of what we don’t know in molecular biology is hard to “discover”, but there is a “roadmap”. I’m probably wrong (in the end), but my view is that we will likely not ever see again discoveries of the same relative importance as, say, the deciphering of the structure of DNA. If you look at many of the recent Nobel Prize awards, they have been for the development of process, not discovery of facts.
        More to the point – Public Funding for university research labs, for the last 15 years, has been flat to declining, certainly in terms of purchasing power. In the 80’s and 90’s there was a steady increase in funding, leading to an administrative mind-set of “we are always going to get more money”, and the overextension of many schools in terms of staff and infrastructure. That has resulted in (finally) some tough adjustments.
        Look closely at the pharmaceutical “pipeline” – much what you said about small groups developing and selling ideas to “Big Ag” for integration and marketing. It is a model that is driving many, many bright scientists to join short-lived start-ups for a chance to see their idea make it to market instead of just into a journal article. You can bet that if there had not been the push-back to genetic engineering there would be the same “pipeline” (and venture capital funding) in agriculture as there is in pharmaceuticals. ( I got an “inside” exposure to the business side of biotech recently by taking a couple of courses on same at the Tuck School of Business.)
        Too bad that 99% of “the public” seems to have no idea just how little we would have today in terms of technology if there were no businesses except what could be operated by one person and a few helpers. We are hugely dependent on the wealth and single-minded focus of large corporations for nearly everything in our lives, such as the cars you mentioned, along with drugs, computers, most of our food, our clothing, our bridges, buildings, and highways…the list goes on and on.
        If “the public” really understood the economic reality that we live in, and the economic (and human condition) reality of not having the resources of “megacorporations” available, the whining about “big ag” would fall on deaf ears.

        • Farmer with a Dell

          Glad to hear there’s something in the works at university research again. It’s been a long, long dry spell. Universities in the 80s, 90s and 2000s became too expert at pissing through large budgets to systematically accomplish nothing. Big departments with big administration playing at big politics to land big grants to be split with university administration lost sight of the need to get good research done. The pathetic sustainable alternative agriculture and cellulosic ethanol gambits leap to mind at the moment, but there have been others.

          Maybe a few solid research achievements will gradually get universities back on the research track? Still needs to be a lot of housecleaning and pruning out of dead wood, however. No question business has pulled in the best talent during the past 30 years, or so. And, yes, in biz the environment is one of ‘pick a winning project and get a working product out the door this season’, which can seem cold and harsh but it’s really no worse than the old ‘publish or perish’ university research model of 50 years ago.

          Anyway, glad to hear you are optimistic. Try to maintain that attitude and get some winning work accomplished for the benefit of applied science. Maybe educate some blistering hot new talent while you’re at it.

      • Stuart M.

        Thanks for your answer. It was spot on (as always). Now if I could only get you to reconsider your support for Trump…

  • J. Randall Stewart

    When five unrelated small farmers pool their resources and operate a farm twice as large as the average size, they’re applauded. If a family of five does that, they are not.

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