Is US agriculture too big?

On Friday, March 12, there was a joint USDA – US Department of Justice workshop on market concentration issues at Ankeny, Iowa. This workshop was the first of 4 planned workshops to be held in various regions of the US. The majority of this workshop focused on crop production issues, specifically patent protection of seed traits and genetically modified seed traits. I read recently that Monsanto now has a say in over 85% of all soybean seed sales and something over 50% of all US seed corn sales because of its patent on Roundup resistance.


This domination is remarkable because no one forced feed grain growers to adopt this technology. Corn and soybean producers adopted the technology because it worked! At the same time, because it worked so well, growers were able to cultivate more acres due to better weed control with less effort. Thus, the unintended consequence of technology adoption was further consolidation of grain production in fewer hands.


The classic question – should the government have refused Monsanto the patent on the technology if it had known that one effect of its application would be further consolidation of agriculture? I don’t think so as the use of this technology has led to dramatic increases in feed grain production that have helped keep food on the American dinner table at one of the lowest prices in the world.


The same types of questions arise in all phases of agriculture. In animal ag, the confounding issue is animal rights. While all involved in animal production support efforts to improve animal welfare, none of us support the belief that animals have the same rights as humans. In the past month, the Swiss finally came to their senses on this topic and voted down a law by a 2:1 margin that would have required that animals be provided lawyers in any animal abuse or welfare situation.


The USDA Economic Research Service estimated that in 2008, the following countries spent less than 10% of all household expenditures on food – US, Singapore, United Kingdom and Germany. Countries spending between 10 and 15% were France, Japan, Hungary, South Korea and Czech Republic. While Canada wasn’t on the country list that I located on the USDA-ERS website, I would expect it to rated in the less than 10% category as well.


At the other end of the spectrum was Indonesia where over 40% of the household expenditures went towards food.


While many critics of our system of production criticize the pace of change in agriculture, I don’t think they want to return to the economic status of yesteryear or of the poor but improving countries of the world.  Russ Parsons of the LA Times said it best – ‘Agriculture is a business. Farming without a financial motive is gardening’.

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