Iowa to Host First USDA Meeting on 'Competition in Agriculture'

Iowa to Host First USDA Meeting on 'Competition in Agriculture'

A series of public workshops will be held in 2010 looking at competition in the ag marketplace and the appropriate role of federal anti-trust laws.

A series of public workshops looking at competition in agriculture and the role of federal anti-trust laws and their enforcement will take place at five locations across the nation in 2010. The first of those meetings, to be held jointly by USDA and the U.S. Department of Justice, will be in Iowa. USDA and the Justice Department made the announcement last week.

The initial workshop is set for March 12 at the new FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny, north of Des Moines. Specific areas of focus include concerns about the seed industry. A USDA spokesman says topics to be discussed are seed technology, vertical integration, market transparency and buyer power. One of the main issues centers on use of biotech traits in seed to the advantage or disadvantage of larger seed companies compared to smaller firms.

An ongoing legal battle between seed industry heavyweights Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto prompts the focus on seed issues. Pioneer, based in Johnston, and its parent company, DuPont, allege that Monsanto is guilty of using its dominance in biotech traits in seed, particularly those resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, to dominate the seed market. Monsanto denies the charges, saying it has only a fraction of the seed sales market and that it licenses its traits widely, including to Pioneer. The latest figures show for seed corn sales, Monsanto's DeKalb and American Seed brands have 36% of the market. Pioneer gained two percentage points last year to reach 32% in seed corn sales.

USDA calls these meetings "workshops" instead of "hearings"

USDA officials are careful to call the meetings "workshops" rather than the more inflammatory word "hearings." The 2010 workshops will address a range of competition issues. Following the March 12 kickoff in Iowa, dates and topics are: May 21, poultry industry, Normal, Ala.; June 7, dairy industry, Madison, Wis.; August 26, livestock industry, Ft. Collins, Colo.; and December 8, margin differentials between producers and consumers, Washington, D.C.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican on the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, has long sought to ensure healthy competition in the ag industry for all market participants by taking legislative action and conducting aggressive oversight. The 2008 Farm Bill included a positive step toward competition, based on legislation sponsored by Grassley, but he sees the need for additional action.

"The agriculture industry has consolidated to the point where family farmers, independent producers and other smaller market participants do not have equal access to fair and competitive markets," he says. "Increased concentration in agriculture will lead to fewer product choices and higher product prices for the American consumer."

Iowa Sen. Grassley sees a need for healthy competition

He adds, "Iowa is one of the leading ag states with a large number of family farmers. It is a prime location to hear directly from farmers who are being impacted by possible anti-competitive behavior. These workshops should address the complexities of competition in agricultural markets, including monopoly and vertical integration. This will give farmers, consumers and agribusiness the opportunity to provide examples of potentially anti-competitive conduct and to discuss concerns about the appropriate application of antitrust laws to the ag sector."

"The workshops are to promote dialogue among interested parties and foster learning with respect to the appropriate legal and economic analyses of these issues, as well as to listen and learn from people involved in the ag sector," says U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

USDA wants public comments submitted before Dec. 31, 2009

Each workshop many feature keynote speakers, expert panels and break-out sessions to address more narrowly focused issues, says a USDA press release. At each workshop, the public will have opportunity to ask questions and provide comments. Vilsack and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder say public attendance and participation is encouraged.

With a goal to generate further dialogue and understanding of issues, the workshops will involve farmers, ranchers, processors, consumer groups, agribusiness, government officials and academics. "This collection of stakeholders will create a forum for discussion and will ensure various industry perspectives," says Vilsack.

The U.S. Department of Justice and USDA are asking for comments in advance of the workshops. Submit your written comments in both paper and electronic form to the Department of Justice no later than Dec. 31, 2009. All comments received will be publicly posted. Two paper copies should be addressed to Legal Policy Section, Antitrust Division, U.S. Dept. of Justice, 450 5th St. NW, Suite 11700, Washington, D.C. 20001. Send your electronic version to agriculturalworkshops@usdoj.gov. Additional updates and information, including agendas and speakers will be posted at www.usdoj.gov/atr/events.htm.

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