For Neil Harl, distinguished professor emeritus in agriculture and economics at Iowa State University, a request to appear at a hearing March 12 in Ankeny on antitrust issues in the seed industry was compelling enough to lure him back from his winter retreat in Hawaii.
“It was tempting to stay away,” Harl said from Hawaii Tuesday after the announcement that he would appear on a panel at the day-long session that will examine competition in the seed industry. “But for years I have urged the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to be more aggressive about competitive issues in agriculture.”
“Now,” Harl continued, “we apparently have an administration that is willing to be more aggressive about these issues and I felt that I couldn’t turn down their request.”
The controversy over competition in the seed business exploded into the open last summer with acrimony and lawsuits between Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred, attracting the attentions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Justice Department.
The March 12 hearing is about a decade overdue, Harl says. He was an early critic of the vertical integration of the seed industry beginning in the mid-1990s when Monsanto bought DeKalb, Holden’s, Kruger, Fontantelle and other corn seed lines and Asgrow soybeans. DuPont promptly bought Pioneer. At the same time Dow Agrosciences bought Mycogen seeds and Sygenta became the owner of the NK, Garst and Golden Harvest brands.
Those purchases all put the seed companies in the hands of companies that also made agriculture chemicals, bringing about the kind of vertical integration for which the oil industry has long been criticized.
The matter has come full circle with Pioneer’s complaint that Monsanto has used the dominance of its Roundup herbicide, paired with the Roundup resistant genetic traits it developed for grain and cotton seeds, to stifle competition and innovation.
Harl was an early opponent of those combinations and he hasn’t changed his mind in the ensuing decade.
“I don’t have a particular ax to grind on this issue with any company,” he said. “I understand why farmers at least in the beginning liked what they were getting from Monsanto and DuPont because the genetically-modified seeds helped them become better farmers. But long-term, we can see that adverse effects of less competition, particularly as the price of seeds goes up.”