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By Staff | Nov 5, 2009

Almost before her first cup of government coffee cooled, Christine Varney, the antitrust chief at the U.S. Department of Justice since April 20, tossed the Bush Administration’s antitrust guidelines – described as toothless – out the window.

There’s a new collusion cop in town, she explained on May 9, and DOJ’s “Antitrust Division will be aggressively pursuing cases where monopolists try to use their dominance in the marketplace to stifle competition and harm consumers.”

“Hurray!” cried many farmers, ranchers and antitrust attorneys who’ve been barking at Justice to unleash its legal hounds on Big Meat, Big Milk and Big Seed ever since Adam and Eve accepted a consent decree to give up the apple monopoly.

Six months after laying down that marker, however, Varney and her trust busters have their eyes still fixed on ag, but have yet to file one suit to fix ag. Others, though, aren’t waiting.

On Aug. 6, three U.S. senators, “encouraged by (her) commitment to take a hard look at dairy industry consolidation,” sent Varney a detailed letter on seven milk ventures and lawsuits (mostly involving milk giants Dean Foods, Dairy Farmers of America and National Dairy Holdings) that targeted “areas that we believe are particularly ripe for review.”

To ensure Varney got the full flavor of that ripeness the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a hearing on dairy antitrust issues in St. Albans, Vt., Sept. 18. The two senators holding forth were from the Holstein Kingdom of Vermont – Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Bernie Sanders, chairman, and only member, of the Senate’s Independent Party.

The star witness at the hearing was one Christine Varney who, again, pledged her allegiance to antitrust enforcement and to “a careful and comprehensive examination of the marketplace.”

A comprehensive examination of the marketplace is exactly what the American Antitrust Institute made public Oct. 23 in its white paper on the seed industry.

Written by Diana Moss, the Institute’s vice president and senior fellow, the report provides answers to the question in its title, “Transgenic Seed Platforms: Competition Between a Rock and a Hard Place?”

Any examination of today’s seed business, writes Moss, requires a rock-hard look into Monsanto, “the industry’s dominant player.” She begins that look exactly two sentences into the 29-page report. She notes, “A threshold question is whether Monsanto has used its market power to foreclose rivals from market access, harming competition and thereby slowing the pace of innovation and adversely affecting prices, quality, and choice for farmers and consumers of seed products.”

Moss’s report, online at www.antitrustinstitute.org, raises as many economic points as legal ones. For example, she wonders if today’s fabulous new technologies and evolving views of patents also require new ways to enforce antitrust rules, so markets and consumers have the same legal standing as the new technologies.

After all, observes Moss, new technologies that “enjoy widespread and rapid adoption typically experience precipitous declines in cost as innovators-by-doing and competitive pressures drive prices down.”

And “just the opposite has occurred in seed and other ag areas, hasn’t it?” observes Fred Stokes, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets. “Every farmer and rancher knows this and, I now believe, so does Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney.”

And so may Monsanto. On Oct. 9, the leader in transgenic seeds announced it had “received questions” from Justice “this year regarding competition in the seed industry.”

Early next year Varney and counterparts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hear from farmers and ranchers in a series of meetings (rumors suggest four with one in Des Moines, another in Denver) on ag antitrust issues.

Let’s all hurry, while there’s still something to talk about.

Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill. Reach him by e-mail at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.

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