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Corporate giants get fat on food crisis

Logos for the Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge corporations.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Today on Food Fight, our series looking at the global food crisis, the profitable side of rising commodity prices.

Sarah Gardner reports from the Sustainability Desk that big agribusiness firms are breaking earnings records as everything from grains to soybeans skyrocket.


SARAH GARDNER: You won't see their names at the supermarket, but chances are these companies had a hand in that meal you'll cook tonight, multinationals like Cargill. This behemoth buys grain, stores grain, sells grain, transports it, processes it. It even trades grain futures, and that's just its grain business. There's Archer Daniels Midland, another grain and oilseed giant, and one of the country's biggest ethanol producers, and Bunge, hardly a household name, but a leading soybean processor operating in 30 countries.

ANN GILPIN: Bunge, in their last quarter, increased their net earnings 1,964 percent.

Morningstar stock analyst Ann Gilpin, she says it's companies like these that are reaping the benefits of rising commodity prices.

GILPIN: In most cases you're going to be a net seller of agricultural products like corn, like wheat, like soybean.

Take Cargill. It moves grain all over the world. Last quarter it made over $1 billion, an 86 percent jump over a year ago. ADM's profits? Up 42 percent. Mosaic, a fertilizer giant partly owned by Cargill, earned almost 12 times what it did a year ago, and the folks that make seed corn?

BRETT BEGEMANN: We did have a very good second quarter.

Brett Begemann is an executive vice president at Monsanto. The company's quarterly net income more than doubled over last year's. Begemann says farmers from Iowa to Argentina are planting more corn.

BEGEMANN: And given the high commodity prices and the demand for increased yields, farmers were looking to our seeds to help do that.

Monsanto is among five agribiz giants that dominate the world seed market. Fertilizers? Four companies control the vast majority of sales. Soybean crushing? Ditto. Flour milling? Just three. Even those estimates are hard to get. Many of these companies don't comment extensively on their businesses. Cargill, for example, is privately held, and told Marketplace it doesn't "elaborate on its activities." ADM and Bunge didn't respond to an interview request. Analysts say Wall Street profit pressures have fed the companies' size and market power as they build economies of scale. Steve Suppan, at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, says weak antitrust laws haven't helped.

STEVE SUPPAN: And in the absence of, you know, any regulation or enforcement of regulations, you can reduce competition to three or four players.

Recently the head of the London-based World Development Movement called Big Ag's profits "immoral" given the global food crisis, but in the US, the industry has escaped a consumer backlash, so far at least. Stock analyst Ann Gilpin says it's the grain companies that may feel some heat.

GILPIN: A real risk is for them to be equated like the big oil companies. Consumers were complaining about paying so much at the fuel pump. Meanwhile, these oil companies are generating record profits.

Big Ag may soon find itself in the crosshairs over ethanol. Some US politicians are calling for a retreat from biofuels. They link it to high food prices. ADM, among others, has collected billions in biofuel subsidies, and on a recent conference call with analysts, CEO Patricia Woertz was on the defensive. She argued that rising energy prices are the real villain.

PATRICIA WOERTZ: I actually find it sad that these misguided attacks on biofuels is directed at the one alternative we actually have today to transportation fuels, and it's actually increasing fuel supply. Retreat from biofuels is just an empty gesture that won't fill anybody's stomach and won't fill any gas tanks.

This week, two dozen Republican senators, including presidential candidate John McCain, suggested that the government pull back on the biofuels mandate. That could help other agrifood giants that have been complaining about the rising costs of ingredients for everything from breakfast cereal to animal feed. The meat, dairy and packaged food companies are not reporting record profits right now. Tyson, the world's biggest meat producer, lost $5 million last quarter.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: We should tell you that Cargill has been an underwriter of this program. Tomorrow on our series Food Fight, the new face of hunger here and abroad.

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