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Top of Mind: A Day with the DOJ

23:04PM Apr 07, 2010

The hearing on competition in agriculture kicked off at 9:30 a.m., but officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ) advised the press to arrive early. The Des Moines Area Community College's FFA Enrichment Center seats 500 people, but organizers expected more than 700, along with protesters and possibly traffic jams.

Protesters and traffic jams in little Ankeny, Iowa? This could be interesting. I set my alarm.

On the way into the lobby of the FFA center (no protesters in sight), I noticed two giant wall memorials: one denoted funding for the center from Monsanto Company; the other recognized funding from Pioneer Hi-Bred. The juxtaposition of these memorials struck me as ironic, since these companies are in litigation with each other and were sure to be the focus of the day's discussion on seed competition.

The agenda listed more than 30 speakers, including politicians, academics and small independent farmers, mostly from Iowa. More farmers were added to the agenda after groups, such as the National Farmers Union, complained about a
program loaded with academics. Panelists were selected by DOJ and USDA officials.

Throngs of farmers filled chairs in the packed auditorium and others voiced their opinion in the more than 15,000 public comments submitted prior to the hearing. Turn to page 32 for more coverage of the speakers, topics and discussion.

Antitrust Hunt. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder jetted in for the day, but I was more interested in his antitrust chief, Christine Varney, who is spearheading DOJ's probe into agricultural competition. Her office has launched an investigation into Monsanto's licensing and marketing and brought a case against dairy processor Dean Foods to stop the purchase of processing facilities.

The potential abuse of patents in the seed business is what Varney is hunting now. She said there is an intersection between antitrust and patent law, and the crowd applauded her pledge to challenge companies that may be circumventing patent laws.

As the patent for first-generation Roundup Ready prepares to expire in 2014, I expect Varney will home in on the seed industry. Farmers have asked for more focus on agricultural competition, and that's what they seem to be getting. Let's just hope it doesn't stifle innovation.

Jeanne Bernick
Editor of Top Producer