Competition in Agriculture Workshop Called a “Milestone”

March 11, 2010 06:00 PM
 

Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
 
It's been more than a century since the Sherman Antitrust Act to prohibit abusive monopolies became law, and since then, not once has the public and industry come together for a discussion on competition in agriculture. That's why today is such a milestone event, said Eric Holder, Attorney General, US Department of Justice.

Officials from the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture speak today on competition in agriculture. From left: Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General for antitrust, Department of Justice; Eric Holder, Attorney General, Department of Justice; Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary of Agriculture.
 
Holder spoke today at the DOJ and USDA Competition in Agriculture public workshop held at the Des Moines Area Community Center in Ankeny, Iowa. More than 700 people attended the event, the first in a series of workshops to be held across the country (see "Heat is On” story in the March issue of Top Producer for more information).
 
The focus of today's event is on competition within the pork industry and seed industry, market integration, market transparency and buyer power. This spotlight on concentration comes as producers face another spring of high input costs and lower prices for production. While farmers have continually complained to Washington about a growing lack of competition for their products, some say the DOJ has pushed agriculture to the back burner, until now.
 
DOJ Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, Christine Varney, says while there is nothing wrong with being "big” in agriculture, but "big" comes with responsibility to act in a way that keeps competition open. Varney's office has already begun to probe Monsanto Company's share of the genetically modified seed market. Monsanto's Roundup Ready genetic trait is broadly licensed as more than 90% of the U.S. soybean crop, including seed sold by competitors. Monsanto collects a technology fee for licensing the trait.
 
"Patents have been used in the past to maintain and extend monopolies, and that is illegal,” Varney said to the applause of the audience, of which about a quarter were farmers. "We have been looking closely at this.”
 
Regarding price fixing concerns, Varney said it's important to remember the DOJ has criminal authority. "It is illegal for competition to get together and fix prices. We will prosecute any price fixing.”
 
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers can expect pretty quick action on tightening up regulations and reform, and pursuing the Packers & Stockyards Act.
 
Read more from the workshop in the spring issue of Top Producer magazine.
 

 
You can email Jeanne Bernick at jbernick@farmjournal.com.
 
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