Monsanto says DOJ wants seed access details

KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - Monsanto Co said on Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice has issued a civil investigative demand for information on the company’s key soybean genetic traits business after complaints that Monsanto was trying to limit access to push a new, pricier product instead.

Monsanto said it was cooperating with investigators, and reiterated that it would allow farmers and seed companies continued access to its first-generation Roundup Ready soybean trait -- a genetic alteration that makes the soybeans tolerate herbicide treatments -- following that product’s patent expiration in 2014.

Seed dealers, rivals and others have complained that Monsanto was creating conditions, through contracts with seed dealers and other means, that would unfairly push farmers to buy its new Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans and away from the first-generation, lower-priced Roundup Ready beans.

But Monsanto has said repeatedly over the last month that it will not try to stop farmers from saving and replanting its Roundup Ready soybeans after the patent expires and rivals will be able to continue to incorporate the Roundup Ready-tolerant trait into their products. The company said it will not enforce contracts requiring seed companies to destroy or return Roundup Ready seed after patent expiration.

“We respect the thorough regulatory process,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s chief deputy general counsel. “We believe our business practices are fair, pro-competitive and in compliance with the law.”

The fresh demand notice from investigators comes amid a larger probe into competition in the agriculture industry and a specific look at the seed industry, where Monsanto is a world leader. More than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are estimated to contain the Roundup Ready trait.

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona declined to comment on Monsanto on Thursday, other than to say “the antitrust division is investigating the possibility of anti-competitive practices in the seed industry.”

The Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be holding five hearings later this year to discuss fair play and concentration in agricultural marketing.

Shares of Monsanto fell 1.5 percent to $82.67 on the New York Stock Exchange early Thursday afternoon.

Analysts say signs point to a limited probe by regulators.

“We expect this to be the sole focus of the Department of Justice’s inquiry into Monsanto, and that a formal lawsuit will not be filed,” Morgan Stanley analyst Vincent Andrews wrote in a note to investors. “We believe that the DOJ spent the last several months comprehensively reviewing Monsanto’s businesses and that the very narrow scope of the CID request likely indicates no DOJ interest in the remainder of Monsanto’s operating and practices.”

News that the Justice Department was seeking information on market access to the Roundup Ready trait comes a week after rival DuPont specifically asked U.S. regulators to gain assurances from Monsanto regarding the Roundup Ready trait access. The trait is a genetic alteration that Monsanto developed to make soybeans withstand treatment of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

DuPont, which owns Pioneer Hi-Bred International, has also complained that Monsanto is unfairly using monopoly powers to drive up prices and hinder competition in the broad corn and soybean markets.

Reporting by Carey Gillam; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Dave Zimmerman, Matthew Lewis and Richard Chang