How Monsanto Outfoxed the Obama Administration
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It is not just a matter of higher prices. The resulting loss of diversity from Monsanto’s dominance may restrict our ability to adapt plant stocks to an increasingly volatile climate. Many of the seed breeders and retailers Monsanto purchased were regional experts, familiar with the soil and adept at breeding crops suited to the vagaries of local pests and climate. That sprawling network of local knowledge and experimentation has been severely thinned.
Kyle Stiegert, professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Monsanto’s degree of control forecloses important opportunities for innovation. “There are suites of traits and seed combinations that are no longer being experimented with,” he says. “We have no idea if yields could be higher if farmers had flexibility to experiment.”
Experts echoed concerns about how Monsanto’s monopoly threatens future biotech advances to DOJ officials at a public workshop in Iowa in March 2010, as well as in reports submitted during the investigation. They say DOJ’s inaction cements Monsanto dominance for the foreseeable future.
In at least one recent instance, the Obama administration has supported that dominance. In Bowman v. Monsanto – the highly publicized case heard by the Supreme Court last month that pits the company against a 75-year-old farmer – the administration argued in favor of Monsanto’s position. The case asks whether Monsanto can employ patents to control how farmers use not just its seeds but also their progeny. In his brief the solicitor general argued that if patent rights for Monsanto’s crops were reduced, “[t]he incentive to invest in innovation and research might well be diminished.”
“It’s a great frustration,” Carstensen says. “If the Obama administration really cared about technological innovation, they would have come in and tried to free technology from being captured by a single company.” Instead, he says, they have “protected Monsanto’s interest.”
The Obama administration opened the Monsanto investigation as part of a signature effort to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement. In the end the administration appears mainly to have fortified the immense power of a chief target.
It has also ensured that future developments in our seeds – the basis of our food supply – will be driven not by tinkering farmers or scientists competing to discover the next breakthrough, but by the private interests of a single giant.