Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Vertical Integration and Concentration in US Agriculture

  • Mary HendricksonEmail author
  • Harvey James
  • William D. Heffernan
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_216-1

Keywords

Large Firm Food System Vertical Integration Food Sector Industry Concentration 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Synonyms

Introduction

Vertical integration is the process whereby one firm merges with another firm from which it buys inputs or to which it sells output. Concentration reflects the degree of horizontal integration and defines the extent to which a firm has competitors. The food system in the USA has become increasingly integrated and concentrated during the last 100 years. Economists have long argued that economic factors – most notably economic efficiency – largely explain the increase in vertical integration and concentration in the agrifood industry (MacDonald et al. 2004), but others implicate the exercise of market power and changes in antitrust policy enforcement as explanations (Carstensen 2008; Hendrickson and Heffernan 2002). Concentration and integration (hereafter simply “consolidation”) in the food system raises a number of important ethical issues for farmers, agribusiness firms, and consumers. These ethical issues are derived from the fact that concentration fundamentally defines and limits the choices or options for most people. Everyone eats and thus has a stake in the food system, but many people also work in the food system providing labor, management, and capital. It is how members of society respond, or are forced to respond, to limited options that forms the basis for many of the ethical problems we observe in the food system. This entry describes the trends in consolidation within the agrifood industry and highlights a number of important ethical issues and their implications arising from industry concentration.

Trends in Agrifood Consolidation

There are many ways to describe the degree to which an industry is concentrated. A common method is to examine the industry’s four-firm concentration ratio (CR4), which measures the total percentage of a market controlled by the industry’s four largest firms. Scholars have documented extensively the increase in concentration in virtually all sectors of the food and agriculture industry (see, for instance, Drabenstott 1999; Hendrickson et al. 2002; Howard 2009). For example, in 1967 the four largest firms controlled one-quarter of the non-poultry animal slaughtering industry, but by 2007 that share more than doubled. In wet milling, the four largest corn milling plants controlled 68 % of the market in 1967, but by 2007 that share increased to 83 %. Similarly, the four largest flour milling firms controlled 30 % in 1967 but increased their share to 55 % in 2007 (see James 2013a for source details).

Table 1 presents the CR4 for several agricultural and food retailing markets in the USA, as well as names of the top firms if known, for a 20-year period between 1990 and 2011. The table reveals several important patterns. First, with one exception (flour milling), the food sectors represented became more concentrated – the top four firms controlled a larger share of the market. Second, the increase in concentration can occur relatively rapidly. For example, the pork production capacity of the four largest firms nearly doubled in a 10-year period of time. Third, some firms dominate multiple sectors and thus represent both industry concentration as well as vertical integration. Cargill, for instance, produces and processes an array of meats, provides feed, and trades/processes corn and soybeans. Tyson is able to provide a full array of protein – beef, pork, and broilers. Finally, the four largest firms are not the same over time. Some firms dominating their sectors in 2011 were not present in 1990, thus illustrating how quickly firms can come to dominate their industry (e.g., JBS in protein and Wal-Mart in groceries).
Table 1

Four-firm concentration ratios and firm names for selected agricultural input and output industries, and food retailing

Industry sector

1990

1999

2011

Beef slaughter – steer & heifer

69 %

• IBP

• ConAgra

• Excel (Cargill)

• Beef America

79 %

• IBP

• ConAgra

• Excel (Cargill)

• Farmland National Beef

82 %

• Cargill

• Tyson

• JBS

• National Beef

Beef production/feedlots

n/a

• Cactus Feeders

• ConAgra (Monfort)

• J.R. Simplot Co.

• Caprock (Cargill)

1,349,000 capacity

• Continental Grain Cattle Feeding

• Cactus Feeders Inc.

• ConAgra Cattle Feeding

• National Farms Inc.

1,983,000

• JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding

• Cactus feeders (relationship with Tyson)

• Cargill Cattle Feeders LLC

• Friona Industries

Pork slaughter

45 %

• IBP

• ConAgra (SIPCO/Armour)

• Morrell

• Excel

57 %

• Smithfield

• IBP Inc.

• ConAgra (Swift)

• Cargill (Excel)

63 %

• Smithfield Foods

• Tyson Foods

• Swift (JBS)

• Excel Corp. (Cargill)

Pork production

n/a

• Murphy Farms

• Tyson Foods

• Cargill

• National Farms

834,600 sow capacity

• Murphy Family Farms

• Carroll’s Foods

• Continental Grain (incl. PSF)

• Smithfield Foods

1,618,904 sow capacity

• Smithfield Foods

• Triumph Foods

• Seaboard

• Iowa Select Farms

Broiler slaughter

45 %

• Tyson

• ConAgra

• Gold Kist

• Perdue Farms

49 %

• Tyson

• Gold Kist

• Perdue

• Pilgrim’s Pride

53 %

• Tyson

• Pilgrim’s Pride (owned by JBS)

• Perdue

• Sanderson

Turkey slaughter

31 %

• Louis Rich (Philip Morris)

• Swift (Beatrice/KKR)

• ConAgra

• Norbest

42 %

• Jennie-O (Hormel)

• Butterball (ConAgra)

• Wampler Turkeys

• Cargill

58 %

• Butterball (Smithfield/Goldsboro)

• Jennie-O (Hormel)

• Cargill

• Farbest Foods

Animal feed

n/a

n/a

• Cargill (Nutrena)

• Purina Mills (Koch Industries)

• Central Soya

• Consolidated Nutrition (ADM + AGP)

44 %

• Land O’Lakes Purina LLC

• Cargill Animal Nutrition

• ADM Alliance Nutrition

• J.D. Heiskell & Co.

Flour milling

61 %

• ConAgra

• ADM

• Cargill

• Grand Met (Pillsbury)

62 %

• ADM

• ConAgra

• Cargill Flour Milling

52 %

• Horizon Milling (Cargill/CHS)

• ADM

• ConAgra

Wet corn milling

74 %

• ADM

• Cargill

• A.E. Staley (Tate and Lyle)

• CPC

74 %

• ADM

• Cargill

• A.E. Staley (Tate and Lyle)

• CPC

87 %

• ADM

• Corn Products International

• Cargill

Soybean processing

61 %

• ADM

• Cargill

• Bunge

• Ag processors

80 %

• ADM

• Cargill

• Bunge

• Ag processing

85 %

• ADM

• Bunge

• Cargill

• Ag processing

Grocery

n/a

n/a

42–51 %

• Wal-Mart

• Kroger

• Safeway

• Supervalu

Sources: 2011 data is taken from Table 1 in James et al. (2013) and 1999 data is reported in Heffernan et al. (1999). 1990 data is reported in Heffernan and Constance (1990). Sources of individual data are available in each publication

These trends in the food system can be illustrated further by examining the current structure of the fertilizers and seed sectors. Taylor (2010) shows that fertilizers for most grain crops are dominated by only a few companies: Yara, Potash Corp, and Mosaic (recently divested by Cargill). Potash and phosphorous production has long been organized in cartels (Blas 2010; Etter 2008), where three cartels are thought to account for 70 % of the global trade in these two fertilizers (Blas 2010). Howard (2009) documents the consolidation of the seed industry after the introduction of commercially popular Roundup Ready seeds in 1996, which were genetically engineered to resist the spraying of Roundup weed killer (see also Moss 2010, 2011; Hubbard 2009). Some estimates show that 70 % of the corn seed market in the USA in 2009 was controlled by two firms, DuPont (Pioneer) and Monsanto, which controlled 59 % of soybean seed (Pollack 2010). At the global level, UNCTAD (2006) estimated approximately 29 % of 2004 global seed sales were controlled by DuPont/Pioneer, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Limagrain, while ETC Group (2008) claimed 53 % of “global proprietary seed market” was split between those four firms with Monsanto being the leader with 23 % and DuPont at 15 %. Importantly, Monsanto was not involved in the seed industry until the mid-1980s but has acquired more than 50 seed firms since then (several at a cost of more than $1 billion each) (Howard 2009).

The integration and consolidation observed in US seed and agricultural input markets is not just a US phenomenon. Along with Wilkinson (2002), who documents concentration in Brazilian markets, De Schutter (2010) claims that five grain traders dominate the soybean processing market in Brazil, while a CR2 of 53 % in dairy processing in the mid-1990s caused the collapse of dairy farmer cooperatives. Moreover, since the early 1990s, there has been a rapid increase in the globalization of the protein and grain markets. In this context, globalization refers to the process by which firms come to dominate similar markets but in different countries and geographic areas. For instance, in the 1990s, ADM invested heavily in soybean processing facilities in Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and China (see Heffernan et al. 1999; Hendrickson et al. 2008b). Cargill operates significant enterprises around the globe with grain trading activities in all major ports and significant processing facilities in China, where ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus have become the largest soybean processors (Peine 2013). Constance et al. (2013) noted that Tyson has significant meat operations in Mexico while Smithfield operates pork facilities in Brazil and Eastern Europe; the latter occurred at the same time as rapid expansion and consolidation domestically and internationally (see also Bonanno and Constance 2006; Constance et al. 2003). US firms are not the only dominant players either. JBS, based in Brazil, is currently the world’s largest beef packer. Smithfield, the largest US pork processor, was acquired by a Chinese pork packer.

The processes of horizontal integration and globalization have also been very apparent in food retailing. In the 1990s, the food retail industry in the USA consolidated rapidly, primarily due to Wal-Mart’s entry into groceries in the late 1980s. By 2000, Wal-Mart was the second largest grocer in the USA (Hendrickson et al. 2002) and is now the dominant firm (see Table 2). According to the New York Times, Wal-Mart has over three times the sales of its nearest competitor (Clifford 2011).
Table 2

Top firms in food retailing in the USA

1997

2000

2011

CR5 = 24 %

CR5 = 42 %

CR4 = 42–51 %

Kroger Co.

Kroger Co.

Wal-Mart

Safeway

Wal-Mart

Kroger

American Stores

Albertson’s

Safeway

Albertson’s

Safeway

Supervalu

Ahold USA

Ahold USA

 

Sources: 1997 and 2000 data is from Hendrickson et al. (2002). 2011 data is from James et al. (2013)

Wal-Mart is one of a small number of emerging global grocers that include Carrefour (a French firm that is the second largest general retailer in the world) and Tesco, Britain’s largest grocer. Understanding the global reach of food retailers is important because of their control over global supply chains that source food as cheaply and consistently as possible. As Lynn (2006, 2009) notes, Wal-Mart tends to use its market power as a retailer as a tool to negotiate lower prices to producers, manufacturers, and workers rather than forcing consumers to pay higher prices.

Ethical Issues Resulting from Consolidation in the Food System

One of the primary implications of consolidation is that it limits choices in the marketplace. Importantly, the ethical issues that arise because of consolidation are not unique to the food system, as any industry that consolidates creates constraints on existing participants. However, the ethical consequences of concentration in the food system arguably become more important than that in other goods and services because everyone must eat – and on a regular basis. Food is a necessity, which means that the constrained choices of the market can rapidly become a life or death situation in terms of hunger and nutrition. This means that those with more options, or those with greater control over their choices, may actually bear some responsibility for the fates of others. There has been a growing debate among scholars and policymakers about the implications and ethics of industry concentration (see, for instance, James 2013b). The following highlight a number of these ethical issues.

Because industry concentration and integration have been occurring in both farm input and farm output sectors, farmers can feel the effect of constraints the strongest. Hendrickson and James (2005) argue that consolidation has two important and direct effects on farmers. “First, it constrains – as in limits or inhibits – the decisions of farmers by restricting choice options or the types of decisions they can make. … Second, it constrains – as in compels or obliges – the choices of farmers by forcing them into the kinds of decisions that they otherwise would not have chosen for ethical or other reasons” (p. 283). Both of these effects can increase the economic pressures that farmers feel and, as a result, create tensions on or even produce an erosion of one’s personal ethics (see Hendrickson and James 2005; James and Hendrickson 2008). Constrained choice also has an environmental impact, as it affects how farmers care for, treat, and otherwise manage land. As Stuart (2009, p. 53) finds, “consolidated markets and increasing corporate power in the food system can constrain producer choice and create ethical dilemmas over land management … [in that] growers face serious ethical dilemmas and feel pressured by large processing and retail firms to adopt measures they find environmentally destructive and unethical.”

The trends in consolidation noted above also raise the ethical question of whether there is adequate and fair competition in agriculture. For example, in 2010, the US Departments of Agriculture and Justice held a series of workshops in the USA on the issue of agricultural competition. In these workshops farmers and agricultural producers were invited to voice their opinions on what they perceive as the nature of competition in the agrifood industry. Speaking in the opening session, US Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Is today’s agriculture industry suffering from a lack of free and fair competition in the marketplace? That’s the central question” (USDOJ-USDA 2010, p. 11). Important in this discussion is how adequacy, fairness, and competition are defined (see James 2013a; Thompson 2013; Sykuta 2013) as well as the extent to which economic concerns about efficiency, which economists argue have driven the rapid consolidation in agricultural markets, are compatible or in conflict with moral obligations that industry participants have toward each other, animals, and the environment (Rohwer and Westgren 2013).

Industry consolidation in the food sector also raises concerns about how economic power is shifting toward fewer and larger firms and how such power is not being held in check by countervailing economic, social, or political forces (Levins 2002; Taylor and Domina 2010). For example, James et al. (2013) show how the changing structure of the food sector can increase the dependency that some market participants have on others with whom they buy and sell. Importantly, they show how dependency, defined as being reliant upon someone or something else, cannot always be determined by considerations of industry concentration alone (e.g., by measures of CR4). The reason is that focusing on the market share of the top firms obscures the myriad sets of relationships that farmers, food processors, and others are embedded in when they buy inputs or sell their finished products. These relationships can have their own sets of local dependencies, which create or transmit power imbalances along value chains. Thus, “entities who rank near the top in CR4 can experience significant dependency advantages on the buying end (e.g. beef packers with a CR4 of 82 % [may extract concessions from farmers and feedlots]) but when selling, the power resulting from differential dependencies is dissipated by the fact that other entities may possess significant buying power relative to them (e.g. Wal-Mart with somewhere between a quarter and one-third of the grocery market [buys beef from the packer and extract concessions from them])” (James et al. 2013, p. 121).

Food consumers, especially those who consider themselves “ethical eaters,” also face ethical dilemmas resulting from consolidation. The lack of transparency in the current food system, where the vast majority of food moves through supermarket and food service outlets, means that it is difficult for consumers to find out how their food was produced, who produced it, and where. These consumers may want to buy foods produced in ways that match their environmental and social values, but with their limited range of choices – if such foods are available at all – they cannot act on their own personal ethics. Moreover, there can be a lack of trust that the food standards and labels used to define their choices really reflect their core values, given the negotiations that occur between farmers, supermarkets, and third-party (independent) certifiers of standards such as humane, sustainable, fair labor or fair trade (Hatanaka et al. 2006).

The ethical eaters described above are often portrayed as elitist and misguided (McWilliams 2009; Lusk 2013). However, they most likely possess the money and knowledge necessary to participate in the existing food system markets – or leave them altogether for new forms of procuring food such as personal production, direct connections with farmers, or processors who farm and produce food in ways compatible with their ethical interests. But many social justice and public health advocates have raised concerns about the quality and quantity of food available to the most vulnerable citizens of society – those who live in areas, either rural or urban, without good access to fresh, healthy, and safe food with perhaps too much availability of cheap, highly processed, and unhealthy foods (Ver Ploeg 2009; Story et al. 2008). These access issues can be exacerbated by consolidation, which has tended to eliminate smaller retailers and distributors who once served these communities. Moreover, smaller distributors and retailers are at a distinct disadvantage with pricing, given the fact that the largest supermarket buyers may be able to negotiate agreements with suppliers who use economies of scale to supply them at a particular price, but will experience significant diseconomies if the buyer abandons that supplier. Foer (2010) cautions about this “waterbed” effect where one buyer forces a discriminatory low price on a supplier which gains that buyer a competitive advantage, while at the same time, the supplier tries to recoup some profit in selling to other buyers, thereby putting them at a disadvantage in the market place vis-à-vis buyer number one.

Ethical consideration must also be given to the environment. Investment in particular ways of growing and distributing food has been shaped by the consolidation that has happened in the food system. In order to better fit into the globally organized food chains, regions have specialized in production of certain crops or livestock (Lyson 2004), thereby eroding biodiversity and contributing to environmental problems such as nutrient runoff in water supplies, pesticide residues on food and in water, and reduced soil fertility (McIntyre et al. 2008). This compromises the ability of future generations to produce food for their societies.

As smaller farmers, processors, and retailers have been left out of the consolidated food system, the choices that communities can make about social and economic development options are limited by the structure of the food system and the allocation of labor, capital, and management in that system. Since the rise of the modern nation-state system, the availability, quantity, and quality of food have generally been considered a mandate of the government (Friedman and McMichael 1989). However, in the last few decades of globalization, food has moved from the public arena of the nation state into a private arena of decision making that involves those within the dominant firms, including their management teams, boards of directors, and shareholders. When food moves from the public to the private realm, it becomes a privilege rather than a right, however unevenly that right has been claimed or fulfilled (Hendrickson et al. 2008a). With food a necessity for human life, this means consolidation of the food system affects the basic condition of what it is to be human. This certainly requires ethical thought and response.

Conclusion

Wendell Berry (1990) said, “eating is an agricultural act.” While Berry was imploring consumers to understand their basic connection to agriculture and place, his statement explains the fundamental fact that agriculture is part of a complex food system spanning production, consumption, and waste. Moreover, food is a necessity and needed on a regular basis for all human beings, which makes the ethical implications of our food system structure and choices critical to our functioning as a society. In that sense, the food system is certainly part of our larger social, economic, and political systems and reflects and distills the ethical issues we experience within them.

The structure of the food industry has changed – becoming increasingly integrated and concentrated. Such change created or expanded a number of important ethical issues, most of which are derived from the fact that consolidation constrains the choices that farmers, consumers, and other food participants have.

Cross-References

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mary Hendrickson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Harvey James
    • 1
  • William D. Heffernan
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Applied Social SciencesUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA