Small Iowa Farm Town Hears Seed-Industry Complaints

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Scrutiny of the U. S. seed industry took centre stage in the top corn-growing state of Iowa last week as the Justice Department probed complaints about alleged illegal restraint on development and sales of corn, soybeans and other crops.

The March 12 gathering in Ankeny, Iowa, is part of a government probe into allegations that large U. S. seed companies, most notably Monsanto , have gained dominance of the U. S. commercial-seed market through unfair, and in some cases possibly illegal, practices.

The Justice Department scheduled a day-long meeting on Friday last week to look at the “competitive dynamics in the seed industry.” U. S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Christine Varney, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for antitrust, were slated to be in attendance.

Farmers, seed dealers and officials from Monsanto and DuPont, another global titan of the seed industry, were expected to converge on the Midwestern farm town.

DuPont, which owns Pioneer Hi-Bred International, is among those complaining that Monsanto is unfairly using monopoly powers to drive up prices and hinder competition.

Monsanto “seeks to control how, when and whether generic competition comes to agriculture,” said DuPont spokesman Doyle Karr.

But some farmers and dealers say DuPont’s practices are similar to Monsanto’s.

“If we don’t pull this off, make the marketplace a fair deal, then it’s over for the U. S. farmer,” said Fred Stokes, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a public policy research group that has pushed the Justice Department to investigate.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson added to the voices calling for action. Swanson said grain farmers in Minnesota felt licensing restrictions and patents protecting top biotech seed-market players, like Monsanto, were stifling innovation and raising seed costs.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department issued a civil investigative demand for information on Monsanto’s key soybean genetic traits business.

The Justice Department’s probe comes as global sales of genetically modified seeds are on the rise, with Monsanto the undisputed market leader for sales of corn and soybean seeds in the United States and abroad.

The global value of the commercial seed market is estimated at about US$34 billion, with about $10.5 billion in crops with GM traits, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

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