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ANKENY, Iowa (Reuters) - A coalition of family farmers, consumers and other critics of corporate agriculture on Thursday called on the U.S. government to crack down on what they see as unfair consolidation of the nation's food system into the hands of a few multinationals.
Chanting "bust up big ag," a group of more than 250 packed a town hall meeting in the top corn-growing state of Iowa to rally support ahead of a Justice Department meeting on Friday aimed at scrutinizing concentration in the seed business.
The Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are holding a meeting Friday in Ankeny to look at the "competitive dynamics in the seed industry." U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Christine Varney, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for antitrust, are slated to attend.
The meeting in Ankeny is the first ever of its kind and is slated as the first in a series of five such gatherings planned by federal officials to gather input on concentration in the poultry, dairy and livestock industries.
While corporate giants like Wal-mart and Cargill are among the companies facing attack from the farm and consumer groups, the events in Iowa this week are largely targeted at global biotech seed leader Monsanto Co.. The Justice Department and several state attorneys general are probing allegations that Monsanto controls the U.S. commercial seed market via unfair, and in some cases illegal, practices.
"This monopolistic system is rigged against family farmers," said George Naylor, and Iowa corn and soybean farmer who said he struggles to find seed to plant that is not controlled by Monsanto.
Monsanto critics say the company, which develops, licenses and markets genetically altered corn, soybeans and other crops, manipulates the seed market by buying up independent seed companies, patenting seed products and then spiking prices.
Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed traits, which are genetically engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, are embedded in the majority of all soybeans and corn grown in the United States, a penetration level that helped Monsanto post net income of $2.1 billion for 2009.
The farm groups said they hope the attention by the Justice Department will spur policy moves in Washington, chiefly a change that would eliminate the ability of companies like Monsanto to patent seed germplasm, and re-establish farmer rights to save seed from their harvested crops and replant it.
"The crops that we grow are the basis of our civilization. If anything belongs in the public domain it is the crops we grow for food," said Dakota Resource Council member and farmer Todd Leake. "They claim that they own them. That is not right. We need to turn that back."
Monsanto has said its technology helps farmers and that their broad licensing of their technology to other companies helps ensure competition is "alive and flourishing."
On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas, both Republicans, weighed in on the issue, cautioning that a U.S. probe might lead to market intervention that could "stifle innovation."
"Any new activity proposed must avoid the unintended consequence of chilling innovation, investment or job creation in American agriculture," the senators said in letters sent Wednesday to Vilsack and Holder.
Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Bernard Orr