Monsanto dominates seed market

Most crops carry company's genes

The Associated PressDecember 14, 2009 

  • Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys:

    First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical. The company soon released other genetically altered crops.

    Next came the legal innovations. Monsanto was among the first companies to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.

    Back in the 1970s, public universities developed new traits for corn and soybean seeds that made them grow hardy and resist pests. Small seed companies got the traits cheaply and could blend them to breed superior crops without restriction. But the agreements give Monsanto control over mixing multiple biotech traits into crops.

— Confidential contracts detailing Monsanto Co.'s business practices reveal how the world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops, an Associated Press investigation has found.

With Monsanto's patented genes being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products, according to a review of several Monsanto licensing agreements and dozens of interviews with seed industry participants, agriculture and legal experts.

Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family's dinner table. That's because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes.

Monsanto's methods are spelled out in a series of confidential commercial licensing agreements obtained by the AP. The contracts, as long as 30 pages, include basic terms for the selling of engineered crops resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, along with shorter supplementary agreements that address new Monsanto traits or other contract amendments.

The company has used the agreements to spread its technology - giving some 200 smaller companies the right to insert Monsanto's genes in their separate strains of corn and soybean plants. But, the AP found, access to Monsanto's genes comes at a cost, and with plenty of strings attached.

For example, one contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors, unless Monsanto gives prior written permission - giving Monsanto the ability to effectively lock out competitors from inserting their patented traits into the vast share of U.S. crops that already contain Monsanto's genes.

Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine whether the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. The practices also are at the heart of civil antitrust suits filed against Monsanto by its competitors.

The suburban St. Louis-based agricultural giant said it has done nothing wrong.

"We do not believe there is any merit to allegations about our licensing agreement or the terms within," said Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles.

"Our approach to licensing [with] many companies is pro-competitive and has enabled literally hundreds of seed companies, including all of our major direct competitors, to offer thousands of new seed products to farmers," he said.

The benefit of Monsanto's technology for farmers has been undeniable, but some of its major competitors and smaller seed firms claim the company is using strong-arm tactics to further its control.

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of [seed genetics]. This level of control is almost unbelievable," said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "The upshot of that is that it's tightening Monsanto's control, and makes it possible for them to increase their prices long term. And we've seen this happening the last five years, and the end is not in sight."

Power over prices

At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world's food supply. Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to bread and cookies.

The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010, said company spokeswoman Kelli Powers.

Monsanto's broad use of licensing agreements has made its biotech traits among the most widely and rapidly adopted technologies in farming history. These days, when farmers buy bags of seed with obscure brand names like AgVenture or M-Pride Genetics, they are paying for Monsanto's licensed products.

Monsanto chairman and chief executive officer Hugh Grant told investment analysts during a conference call this fall that the price increases are justified by the productivity boost farmers get from the company's seeds. Farmers and seed company owners agree that Monsanto's technology has boosted yields and profits, saving farmers time they once spent weeding and money they once spent on pesticides.

But recent price hikes have still been tough to swallow on the farm.

"It just means I've got less in the bottom line," said Markus Reinke, a corn and soybean farmer near Concordia, Mo. "They can charge because they can do it and get away with it. And us farmers just complain and shake our heads and go along with it."

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