Tom Vilsack, in Iowa visit, says Biden administration will look at consolidation in seed industry
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that the White House plans to look at consolidation within the seed industry, the next step in carrying out President Joe Biden’s order to increase competition within agriculture.
Vilsack, visiting Ankeny and Ames with Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula, Mexico’s secretary of agriculture and rural development, said the administration had just started looking at consolidation within the seed industry, but had concerns about the length of patents some companies hold on technology.
The former Iowa governor, in Iowa with Villalobos ahead of a World Food Prize panel Thursday in Des Moines, said he understands that seed companies want to see a return on their investment in new technology, but that the “pace of change” could mean lengthy patents don't make sense.
In July, Biden directed his administration to investigate consolidation across several industries, including agriculture, saying it's resulted in farmers paying too much for seed, tractors and fertilizer — and in higher food prices for consumers.
As “these companies merge and come together, it gets rid of competition,” said Nick Griffieon, who hosted Vilsack's Ankeny visit on the farm he operates with his parents, LaVon and Craig Griffieon.
The price of seeds is important to farmers, who face steep increases in the cost to plant next year's crop. Developing hybrid seeds for row crops like corn and soybeans also is an important industry in Iowa.
The state is a major operations site to several large seed companies, including Corteva Agriscience in Johnston, which includes Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a company that future U.S. agriculture secretary, and later vice president, Henry Wallace founded in Iowa in 1926.
So far, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice have focused on consolidation within the meatpacking industry, primarily beef production, saying four large corporations — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef, and Cargill Inc. — control at least 70% of meat processing.
Vilsack, who toured a seed lab at Iowa State University before going to Ankeny, said the COVID-19 pandemic showed how vulnerable the U.S. food system is: Several meatpacking plants closed after workers became sick, backing up pigs, cattle, chickens and turkeys on farms across the country.
Some pork producers in Iowa and other states destroyed animals they couldn’t get processed.
“Americans have asked for this incredibly efficient system, and they have it. But now we have to balance it with resiliency,” said Vilsack, asking Villalobos how much of Mexicans' income is used to buy food.
Villalobos said 30%. Vilsack said Americans pay 9%.
Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to provide $500 million to states and local governments, as well as nonprofit organizations and the livestock industry, to look for ways in which to finance expanded food processing capacity.
It’s also providing up to $160 million to help keep existing small processing companies in business.
LaVon Griffieon said she and her family used to have three buyers who visited their farm to bid on cattle. That number shrank to one, prompting her to start marketing the farm's beef, pork, chicken, turkey and other farm goods directly to consumers.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Tom Vilsack, in Iowa visit, says Biden administration will look at consolidation in seed industry