Officials hear farmers' antitrust concerns

Chris Rizo Mar. 12, 2010, 1:34pm

Eric Holder

Tom Miller (D-Iowa)

Richard Cordray (D-Ohio)

ANKENY, Iowa, (Legal Newsline)-Antitrust activities by large agribusinesses will not be tolerated, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday in a meeting with farmers in Iowa.

At the meeting, which was also attended by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the Obama administration pledged a thorough examination of claims that monopolies are driving small- and mid-sized farms out of business.

Holder, in prepared remarks, said antitrust activities in the agriculture sector threaten the larger U.S. economy.

"Now, we all know that one of the greatest threats to our economy is the erosion of free competition in our markets. And we've learned the hard way that recessions and long periods of reckless deregulation can foster practices that are anti-competitive and even illegal," Holder said.

Flanked by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the attorney general said the Justice Department is "committed to protecting competition vigorously," but enforcement of antitrust statutes alone will not protect farmers.

"That's why we're partnering with the USDA - to benefit from its deep expertise in your industry and, hopefully, to share ours on the broader regulatory issues that are potentially at play," Holder said. "That's also why we're engaging directly with all of you - to listen, to learn and to determine the best ways to ensure fairness and encourage success."

Farmers in Iowa, a leading corn-growing state, have been particularly critical of seed company Monsanto Co., which they say largely -- and unfairly -- controls the market on the corn and soybean seeds.

They say the Creve Coeur, Mo.-based company has driven up seed prices by way of its genetically-modified products. But the large multinational company has said its licensing agreements in fact encourage competition.

"Monsanto's place in seed is something that is a competitive issue that is before all of us," Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying. On his Web site, Miller says: "The Iowa Attorney General's Office has held a long-term concern about the increasing concentration of market power in agriculture."

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who also attended the DOJ's workshop, said state attorneys general are committed to keeping competition in the agriculture marketplace.

"My colleagues and I are intent on making certain that our laws are enforced and updated to ensure protection for farmers and other producers against the threat of concentrated economic power that crowds out competition," said Cordray, a Democrat.

Christine Varney, head of the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division, told farmers outside the meeting the Obama administration is not looking to break up large agriculture companies, like Monsanto.

"Big is not illegal," Varney was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. "We are not looking to restructure the economy. We are looking to enforce the law wherever the facts take us."

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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