* Special focus on patent law misuse
* Attorney General cites "historic era of enforcement"
* Monsanto defends high seed prices
(Adds comments, details)
By Carey Gillam
ANKENY, Iowa, March 12 Two U.S. cabinet members
and other top officials on Friday pledged a thorough
examination of allegations that monopolistic practices in
agriculture are driving small farmers out of business and said
they would aggressively enforce antitrust laws.
As farmers and other critics of corporate agriculture
called for a government crackdown on agribusiness monopolies,
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom
Vilsack promised to usher in more stringent oversight of
Addressing a standing-room-only crowd at a college
auditorium in Iowa, the cabinet members said they recognized
several key components of agriculture were concentrated into a
few corporate hands, though they need to determine how that
helps or hinders farmers overall.
Holder told the crowd of farmers, labor and consumer groups
and corporate representatives that the Justice Department sees
erosion of competitive markets as a significant threat to the
U.S. economy, thus a national security matter.
"We want everybody to have a fair shot," said Holder. "Big
is not necessarily bad, but big can be bad if power that comes
from being big is misused. That is simply not something that
this Department of Justice is going to stand for."
Friday's meeting in Ankeny, Iowa, was the first of a series
of five such gatherings the federal agencies are holding around
the United States to examine complaints about concentration in
the seed, livestock and dairy industries.
The day-long meeting is organized as a forum for farmers,
academics, corporate officials and consumer groups to voice
their concerns to federal officials.
"What farmers need is opportunity that needs to be free of
the corporations that control so much of the industry," said
Iowa farmer Ken Fawcett told federal officials at the forum.
"Corporations decide too much."
The joint Justice Department/USDA meeting in Iowa, the top
U.S. corn-growing state, was focused in part on complaints
about leading seed company Monsanto (MON.N). Critics say the
company has gained sweeping control of the corn and soybean
seed markets, driving up prices and its profits by buying up
independent seed companies, patenting seed traits and inducing
dealers to promote Monsanto products over rivals.
American Antitrust Institute Vice President Diana Moss said
there was no question that Monsanto enjoyed a monopoly in the
"It is an inescapable fact," Moss said, describing what she
called an "illusion of choice."
Monsanto has denied engaging in any unfair monopolistic
practices and said its licensing arrangements foster broad
Monsanto Vice President Jim Tobin told the forum in Iowa
that the company has licensed its technology to more than 200
seed companies and was working to help foster use of generic
herbicide-resistant soybeans after the company loses its patent
on Roundup Ready soybeans in 2014. Tobin said higher prices for
the company's seed products are justified by higher seed
performance and efficiencies farmers glean from the high-tech
"That is why we have high market share," Tobin said.
Critics of Monsanto are pushing for U.S. government action,
particularly changes in Monsanto's patented control of seed
Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, who oversees
antitrust issues for the Justice Department, did not speak
directly about Monsanto, but drew applause when she said
Justice would vigorously examine any misuse of patent
protections to gain monopolies.
She said the antitrust division has appointed investigators
with agricultural backgrounds as part of an "unrelenting quest"
to ensure a balanced marketplace.
Holder also emphasized the Justice Department's interest in
pursuing any misuse of patents as part of an aggressive probe
Holder said that consumers will see a "historic era of
enforcement that will grow."
The officials would not comment about specific companies or
actions that they may take.
"We are looking to enforce the law vigorously and fairly,"
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by David Gregorio and