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Lack of Biotech Competition and POV Food Inc.

posted on April 22, 2010 at 10:28 AM

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Iowa Journal Host Mark Pearson: The next thing we're going to talk about is really important. The strengthening global economy certainly is welcome news for American farmers as they embark in the annual rite of spring planting right now.  And the government reports U.S. growers are embracing biotechnology in a big way. 

According to USDA, biotech seeds accounted for 86% of U.S. corn planted in 2009, 91% of the soybeans and 88% of the cotton.  Critics claim too few seed companies control too much of the market for technologically advanced products.

Pollan: The idea that any corporation could own a food crop is a very new idea and it wasn't until the 1980s that the Supreme Court said you could patent life and that opened the flood gates, efforts to patent the most valuable parts of life which is to say the crops on which we depend.

Concerns over growing consolidation in the American beef and poultry sectors and shrinking options for some inputs like seed are nothing new. Food, Inc. contributors, like writer Michael Pollan, surmise Monsanto as wrongfully squeezed market share in the biotech industry.

Monsanto and other seed firms adamantly defend their ability to patent strains and develop new technologies that they argue benefit corporation and farmer alike. A recent study released by the National Academy of Sciences supported many of the claims made by biotech companies Monsanto and DuPont owned Pioneer Hi-Bred, a national underwriter of IPTV's Market to Market.

According to the research, biotech crops have lowered production costs, reduced the use of pesticides and have generated better yields compared with conventional crops. But the data also reveals some cause for concern. The report compiled by the National Research Council cautions that wheat and insect resistant crops could spawn the evolution of more invasive wheat varieties. But the report is only one piece of data reflecting the biotech industry.

Pollan: Monsanto is very much like Microsoft, the same way Microsoft owns the intellectual property behind most computers in America, they set out to own the intellectual property behind most of the food in America. Food, Inc. criticizes an ever-growing and consolidating biotech industry and those claims may have a receptive ear in the Obama administration.

Christine Varney: When you have a tremendous amount of market share you have the responsibility to behave in ways that keep the competitive playing field open. You cannot engage in acts that are designed to protect or extend your monopoly.

A cluster of the nation's agricultural and legal leaders convened in Ankeny, Iowa last month to probe dwindling corporate competition complaints.

The first in a series of public workshops organized by USDA and the U.S. Justice Department reflects increasing concern over consolidation in the nation's biotech seed sector. On hand to defend accusations of unchecked corporate power, Monsanto's vice president of industry affairs, Jim Tobin. He defended the need to protect legally patented seed.

Jim Tobin: What has intellectual property meant to the industry? Let's start with it has attracted a great deal of innovation. New investors, new dollars, new opportunities for farmers to choose to use products that help them make money. If you look at the corn and soy opportunities that are coming, not just from one company but from many companies, there are 50 different traits in that pipeline that are listed as being worked on for the next ten years.

Despite Monsanto's defense many farmers in the audience remained concerned that free market seed options are diminishing.

Parr: Monsanto accused me of aiding, abetting, encouraging and enticing the farmer to break the patent law.

Farmer Mo Parr profiled in Food, Inc. and on hand for the Ankeny antitrust hearings was hopeful federal regulators could peel back the power structure of biotech companies.

Mo Parr: I really think we need to go backwards to get rid of the utility patent on living organisms.

Parr's personal and legal issues with Monsanto are nothing new. In profiling Parr's seed cleaning business, Food, Inc. depicted Monsanto policies that appeared to put a financial and emotional strain on American farmers. Parr contends he never broke the law because he never replanted clean seed and never cleaned Monsanto's RoundUp Ready soybeans.

Mo Parr: It cost me $56,000 in attorney fees and Monsanto got a judgment of $40,000 against me.

According to Monsanto, Parr is able to continue to clean conventional soybeans, wheat and other non-patented seed crops, and Monsanto, in a gesture of good faith, has agreed to forego the financial judgment against Mr. Parr as long as he honors the terms of the court order.

Regardless of Parr's case, Monsanto and other large biotech companies are under a larger regulatory microscope. Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned against pre-judging the corporate seed complaints but argued the Justice Department is already active in the biotech arena.

Eric Holder: But you should not take from the fact that we are having these meetings, the fact that we're simply sitting on our hands and then waiting for the fifth workshop before we decide what it is we're going to be doing. We are active right now.

Tags: agriculture Barack Obama biotechnology business ecology economy food food safety genetic engineering Iowa soybeans