Monsanto. It’s hard to even say the name without triggering a fierce reaction. The company has long been the public face of GMOs, thanks (in part) to the utter dominance of its corn, soy, cotton, and other seeds engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

And pretty soon, Monsanto may no longer exist. At least not in its current form.

On Wednesday, the German chemical conglomerate Bayer offered to buy up Monsanto for $56 billion, in what could prove to be the largest corporate merger of the year. If the deal is approved by regulators — and that’s still an open question — it would make the new company the largest agribusiness on this planet, selling 29 percent of the world’s seeds and 24 percent of its pesticides.

That would put the new company in a commanding position vis-a-vis our food supply. As such, EU regulators and the US Department of Justice are likely to scrutinize this deal closely to make sure the new company doesn’t become an all-consuming monopoly that starts jacking up prices everywhere. That’s not the only reason to worry: some onlookers fret that a lack of competition in agribusiness could shrivel up innovation, leading to slower and fewer improvements in crop yields.

“There is a risk of a lot of regulatory and political scrutiny. We put chance of approval at 50 percent,” Jeremy Redenius, analyst at Bernstein, told the Financial Times.

It’s a big story, and not just because Monsanto is such a famous (or infamous, if you like) brand. The consolidation of the world’s seed, chemical, and fertilizer industries over the past two decades has been staggering, with potentially huge ripple effects for farms and food systems all over the globe.

Mergers in agribusiness are nothing new — but this is a colossal step

Back in 1994, the world’s four biggest seed companies controlled just 21 percent of the market. But in the years since, as crop biotech advanced, companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and Dupont went on a feeding frenzy, buying up smaller companies and their patents. Today, the top four seed companies and top four agrochemical firms command over half their respective markets.

Now the pressures to merge have become even more intense. Thanks to an economic slowdown in China and a glut of food production over the past few years, the global agricultural economy has been slumping. Commodity prices have fallen, and farmers have less to spend on supplies. And the major seed and chemical companies haven’t been able to churn out enough innovative new products to counteract this trend.

So they’re trying to consolidate further, hoping to convince shareholders that they can slash costs and keep profits high.

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer, is in a relatively precarious position here. For years, the company reaped huge profits from selling its popular weedkiller, glyphosate (known as “Roundup”) as well as crops genetically engineered to withstand the weedkiller (known as “Roundup Ready” crops). But thanks to overuse, more and more weeds in the United States are developing resistance to Roundup — and Monsanto will eventually need to find a replacement. The company is currently spending $1 billion to develop crops resistant to dicamba, another herbicide, but a merger would help maintain market share in the meantime.

Last year, Monsanto put in a failed bid to buy up Syngenta, the world’s largest chemical producer. At the time, Syngenta’s CEO Mike Mack said the bid showed that Monsanto’s “core markets have been saturated” and that it lacked “fundamentally new innovation” to drive growth. You could arguably say the same thing about the Bayer-Monsanto merger.

Monsanto’s not alone. Last year, Dow Chemical and Dupont agreed to combine their crop-science divisions, and are waiting on the US Department of Justice for approval. This year, the China National Chemical Corporation got the okay from US regulators to buy the Swiss seed company Syngenta in a $43 billion deal.

If all these mergers go through, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones reports, the three newly formed companies will sell 59 percent of the world’s patented seeds and 64 percent of all pesticides. They’d be behemoths.

Why all these mergers are potentially worrisome

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about an agricultural landscape dominated by just a few giant companies. If fewer firms are selling seeds and chemicals, they might be able to raise prices on farmers. For this reason, groups like the National Farmers Union have been opposing many of these deals.

The other fear is that if these behemoths face less competition, they may face less pressure to pursue the sorts of innovations needed to improve crop yields and help feed a rapidly growing world. Others worry that these newly merged companies would end up focusing more on their most profitable crops rather than branch into smaller and underserved markets such as Africa.

Last year, when Monsanto was trying to buy up Syngenta, the company argued these fears were unfounded. Among other things, the company contended that innovation might actually be quicker, not slower, if research labs were consolidated.

The big question now is whether regulators will buy these arguments. Bayer and Monsanto are arguing that the two companies have little overlap — Monsanto focused on seeds and biology, while Bayer focused on chemicals — so there are few antitrust concerns there. But EU regulators are known to be deeply skeptical of GM technology, and are likely to give this deal extra scrutiny.

The US Department of Justice will also be taking a close look. In recent years, the DOJ has become much more proactive about thwarting agribusiness mergers. As Philpott points out, just two weeks ago, the agency halted a deal in which Monsanto would’ve sold its precision-planting division to John Deere — because the latter would have had 86 percent of the market in these technologies. Not an auspicious sign for this deal.

It’s not at all clear if the Justice Department would block the deal altogether or merely add conditions to it. For instance, Jack Kaskey of Bloomberg points out that the newly merged Bayer-Monsanto company would control about 70 percent of cottonseed sales in the United States — so they may be forced to sell those assets off. We’ll see.

Will Monsanto keep its name?

Another huge question here is whether Bayer would keep the Monsanto name if it does buy the company.

After all, the name “Monsanto” carries a lot of baggage, most of it negative. When people express fears about corporate control of food or biotechnology, they invariably point to Monsanto. It’s viewed as the company that patents seeds and ruthlessly sues farmers who try to misuse them. It was one of the companies that produced Agent Orange. You get the picture.

People in the company (and, frankly, many scientists unaffiliated with the company) have long seen that reputation as unfair. To them, there’s an anti-GMO movement out there that spreads a lot of baseless information about genetic engineering and that has latched onto Monsanto as the face of evil. The company has tried a series of rebranding moves over the years to ameliorate its reputation. (Witness this Wired story: “Monsanto Is Going Organic in the Quest for the Perfect Veggie.”)

None of it has worked. A great anecdote in the New Yorker: In 2013, David Friedberg sold his weather-data company, the Climate Corporation, to Monsanto for $1 billion. His father’s first reaction was: “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?”

Given all that, Bayer may consider going all-in and changing the name entirely. “It is too early to speculate about what the name of the company is going to be,” Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said in an interview in May. “But let me tell you that Bayer’s name and Bayer’s reputation stand for science, innovation and an utmost level of responsibility for societal needs, and that is what we are going to leverage on, also for the combined company going forward.”

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