Iowa Public Television

 

Food Inc., Monsanto, and Antitrust

posted on April 19, 2010


A strengthening global economy is welcome news for America's farmers as they embark in the annual rite of spring planting. And the government reports U.S.. growers are embracing biotechnology in a big way.

According to USDA, biotech seeds accounted for 86 percent of U.S. corn planted in 2009, 91 percent of the soybeans and 88 percent of the cotton.

But critics claim too few seed companies control too much of the market for the technologically advanced products.

Michael Pollan: "For the last 25 years, our government has been dominated by the industries that it was meant to be regulating." (FROM FOOD INC)

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 has 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 weed and insect-resistant crops could spawn the evolution of more invasive weed varieties.

But the report is only one piece of data reflecting the biotech industry.

Michael 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." (FROM FOOD INC)

Food Inc criticizes an ever-growing and consolidating biotech industry AND those claims may have a receptive ear in the Obama Administration.

Christine Varney, Antitrust Division U.S. Justice Dept: "At what point are you too big and we have to take action?"

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, defended the need to protect legally patented seed.

Jim Tobin, Monsanto: "It's attracted a great deal of innovation. New investors, new dollars, new opportunities for farmers to choose to use products that help them make money. It's an exciting time. There are a lot of choices today and there is going to be a lot more choice in the future and there is tremendous competition for the farmers."

Despite Monsanto's defense, many farmers in the audience remained concerned that free market seed options are diminishing. Farmer Mo Parr, profiled in Food Inc and on-hand for the Ankeny anti-trust hearings, was hopeful federal regulators could peel back the power structure of biotech companies.

Moe Parr, Indiana Farmer: "I hope that they can withdraw the utility patent. 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 re-planted cleaned seed AND never cleaned Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans.

The two parties have since reached an agreement. 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 prejudging the corporate seed complaints but argued the Justice Department is already active in the biotech arena.

Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General: "But you should not take from the fact that we are having these meetings is some sense that we are sitting on our hands waiting for the 5th workshop to decide what it is we will be doing. We are active right now."


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