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Intellectual Property Consolidation in the Agriculture Industry
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Ever since agencies around the world such as the USPTO, USDA, and Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) have started recognizing and enforcing intellectual property rights relating to plants, there has been a slow yet massive consolidation in global seed markets.  This article discusses a brief history of how intellectual property rights and lax antitrust enforcement in the seed industry created one of the largest industry consolidations and how the current Administration seems to be taking steps in the right direction.

Intellectual Property in the Agriculture Industry

In 1930, the United States began granting plant patents and the USPTO issued the first plant patent in 1931 for a rose.  The UPOV is an international organization that was founded in 1961 to acknowledge and make available exclusive property rights for breeders of new plant varieties in all member states to the UPOV Convention. The U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) was enacted by Congress in 1970 to encourage the development of new varieties and to make them available to the public.  The Plant Variety Protection Act established in the Department of Agriculture an office to be known as the Plant Variety Protection Office.  These regulations are all very important for the protection and continued innovation of certain varieties of crops and plants.  However, when genetically modified seeds were introduced in 1996, seed companies began to take advantage of these protections and began to invest heavily in amassing as many seed-related IP rights as they could.  As these companies have merged and acquired smaller businesses, they remove competition from the industry, harming farmers, families, and consumers.

There are many ways that companies protect intellectual property in the agricultural industry.  For example, companies file for utility patents to protect a wide variety of plant-related inventions, such as breeding methods, plant-based chemicals, plant parts, and plant products. Plant patents are unique to the United States and provide protection to any distinct and new variety of plant that has been asexually reproduced, other than a tuber-propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state.  Plant Variety Protection certificates, which are similar to plant patents, provide certain exclusive rights to breeders of any new, distinct, uniform, and stable sexually or asexually reproduced or tuber-propagated plant varieties.  Other rights, known as Breeders’ Rights, exist in other countries outside the United States and are very similar to the Plant Variety Protection regulations.  These protections generally last for 20 years from the date of filing and, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, the patent owner has the right to decide who may – or may not – use the patented invention for the period in which the invention is protected.

The Key Players in the Agriculture Industry

Monsanto was a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation founded in 1901 and based in the United States.  In 1970, Monsanto scientist John Franz discovered that glyphosate was an herbicide and quickly patented it as such.  In 1974, Monsanto brought the patented glyphosate herbicide to the market using the tradename “Roundup.”  In 1996, Monsanto created the first genetically engineered (GE), glyphosate-resistant crop, causing Roundup-resistant soybeans to be planted commercially throughout the United States.  By 1998, glyphosate-resistant corn was available on the market, and Monsanto became the largest supplier of these new GE, “Roundup-Ready” seeds.  This was such a breakthrough in the agriculture industry that in 2003, Roundup-Ready seeds accounted for about 90% of the genetically modified seeds planted around the globe.

As with many industries, the agriculture industry has those companies that are at the top and those that are not.  The agriculture industry’s “Big Six” companies—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and BASF—turned into the “Big Four”—ChemChina, Corteva, Bayer, and BASF— after a series of mergers and acquisitions that took place in the last decade with very little oversight from some of the antitrust authorities in the United States and around the world.  As a result of these mergers, the “Big Four” companies now control around 60% of the proprietary seed in the world market.

The Consolidation of the Seed Industry

Dr. Phil Howard from Michigan State University discussed the tremendous consolidation of the commercial seed industry in one of his first publications, 2009’s Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996-2008.  Dr. Howard describes how the hybrid-seed corn industry of 1930, the enforcement of patent-like protections, and especially the commercialization of fully patent-protected transgenic, genetically engineered seeds in the mid-late 1990s triggered a wave of consolidation in the agricultural industry.  To make matters worse, when these companies consolidated and amassed massive intellectual property portfolios, it was not uncommon for seed rights to be bundled with other inputs to protect profits in other, agrochemical divisions.  For example, as Dr. Howard details in Visualizing Consolidation, in order to use Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant transgenic seed, farmers are required to also use Monsanto’s proprietary glyphosate herbicide, rather than a generic herbicide.  Essentially, if you were buying Roundup-Ready seed, you were buying Roundup herbicide, and if you were using Roundup herbicide, it was probably a good idea to buy Roundup-Ready seed.  This type of competitive business practice is one that eventually creates a multitude of problems for smaller, independent businesses, breeders, and farmers. 

Antitrust and Anti-Competition in America

Antitrust laws are not a new concept in American society.  Antitrust laws are statutes and regulations that are designed to promote the overall competition in the market by promoting free, open, and competitive markets.  Congress passed the first antitrust law in 1890 when it wrote the Sherman Act, which made it illegal for companies to enter into agreements to compete with one another, resulting in price fixing and monopoly power.  Several years later, in 1914, Congress passed the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission Act to protect American consumers by giving the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) the authority to oversee and review mergers and acquisitions that are likely to stifle competition.  Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, the FTC and DOJ review most of the proposed transactions that affect commerce in the United States and either agency can take legal action to block deals that it believes would “substantially lessen competition.”

While these laws are all beneficial in theory, their implementation in the agricultural industry has been lacking to say the least.  According to a study in 2018, Bayer alone is estimated to control 35% of corn seed, 28% of soybean seed, and 70% of cottonseed in the global market!  Even more alarming may be the USDA’s 2014 report citing concerns that glyphosate-resistant crops have become ubiquitous with American agriculture with 93% of soybeans, 85% of corn, and 82% of cotton planted being genetically modified to be glyphosate-resistant.  The herbicides that are used to combat the weeds surrounding the crops, in many cases, are supplied by the same company that provides the seeds.

Promoting Competition in the Agriculture Industry

It has been almost a century since the first antitrust laws were enacted, and yet the problem of corporate consolidations remains in many industries across America.  On July 9, 2021, the Biden Administration signed an executive order aimed to promote competition within various industries in the United States.  The order includes 72 initiatives by more than a dozen federal agencies to promptly tackle some of the most pressing competition problems across our economy.  According to the Administration, this order is a “whole-of-government” approach to drive down prices for consumers, increase wages for workers, and facilitate innovation. This was a major step in the right direction to weaken the power that major businesses have obtained as a result of corporate consolidation in industries like healthcare, technology, transportation, and especially agriculture.

This Executive Order also established the White House Competition Council to drive forward the Administration’s whole-of-government effort to promote competition.  On September 10, 2021, the Competition Council held its inaugural meeting to discuss promoting pro-competitive policies and new ways of delivering concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, farmers, and small businesses.  During the meeting, the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Justice, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Federal Trade Commission briefed the council members on their efforts to implement the directives of the Executive Order.

The Challenge of Facing the Consolidated Agriculture Industry

According to an October 20, 2021 report by Thomson Reuters, Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said that the Biden Administration plans to take a hard look at the consolidation of the seed industry and figure out “why it’s structured the way it’s structured” and “whether these long patents make sense.”  The White House Competition Council is certainly faced with a difficult challenge to parse through both anti-competition law and intellectual property law.  For centuries these bodies of law have caused great debate.  One body of law restricts monopolization wherein the later grants monopolistic opportunities. 

There is no doubt that any changes to the current seed industry scene would shake things up.  But what exactly would that look like?  Are we going to see the “Big-4” morph into another, new identity?  Are changes to the patent law system likely?  Whatever happens, the agriculture industry will likely pay close attention to the actions of the White House Competition Council over the next couple months. 

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