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The Biden administration wants more competition in the seed industry

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A wall of seed packets is displayed, advertising seeds of various garden and farming vegetables.

An estimated 60% of global seed sales are controlled by just four companies. Maja Hitij/Getty Images

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The Joe Biden administration has been on a mission to boost competition in the American economy. Working under a sweeping executive order to that effect, federal agencies have taken aim at bank overdraft fees and “noncompete” agreements that keep workers from pursuing higher pay. They’ve also allowed hearing aids to be sold over the counter.

All of that is meant to curb the influence of the biggest companies. This week, the White House put the agricultural seed sector on notice by forming a working group to look at market concentration in the industry.

You know that meme of a really intense-looking guy in front of a bulletin board with crisscrossed red string outlining his conspiracy theory? That’s Phil Howard charting decreasing competition in the seed sector.

“Yeah, it’s a lot to keep track of,” he said, laughing. Howard is a professor at Michigan State University who has been at this since the late ’90s. 

His latest graphic shows that over 60% of global seed sales are controlled by just four firms. 

“They’ve made hundreds of acquisitions of formerly independent seed companies. The power of the seed industry is held in fewer and fewer hands,” he said.

The farmers buying those seeds have fewer choices and pay higher prices, Howard said.

The history of consolidation in this particular market tracks with a loosening of antitrust regulation throughout the economy. There were thousands of independent, mom and pop seed suppliers until about the mid-1980s. 

“Since that time, the antitrust law has been not too intrusive,” said Eleanor Fox, a professor emerita at New York University law school. 

Starting under President Ronald Reagan, she said, regulators and courts increasingly approved big mergers and acquisitions that consolidate markets. “The Biden administration is trying to buck that. And it’s not easy,” Fox added. 

Because, per Fox, it can’t bust up mergers that have already happened. But it can take a harder look at the intellectual property issues at play, according to Michigan State’s Howard.

“There have been a lot of problems with the current system for patents, really broad patent claims being made by these big firms,” he said.

That prevents smaller seed breeders from entering the market, Howard said — and from innovating and competing with the Big Four. 

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