So much news. The US Embassy will move to Jerusalem. The Russians are thrown out of the Olympics for (surprise!) cheating. Al Franken resigns. Roy Moore is defeated. And Christmas is coming. Who has time for … antitrust?
Still, it’s worth reading a few paragraphs about antitrust now and then, especially when it concerns important products like the food we eat.
In 1967, the U.S. population was 199 million. Today it’s 325 million. And yet American agriculture feeds all those people easily, and a lot more besides. In fact, agriculture is one of America’s strongest industries. It creates American jobs on, literally, American soil, and has produced a trade surplus in every year since 1959.
How come? Because of American know-how, midwifed through the magic of competition. Competition keeps prices down. Competition also encourages innovation — and farming today is a highly innovative, high tech enterprise, dependent on advanced chemistry, genetics, robotics, big-data, and even climate science.
Competition, however, can be stifled when two big competitors merge, as Bayer and Monsanto are planning to do now. Bayer doesn’t just make aspirin. Bayer’s Crop Science Division is one of the leading agricultural research and development companies in the world, and it competes directly with Monsanto, which is even bigger.
There are three key dimensions to modern farming: seeds (developed through genetic engineering as well as traditional breeding), crop protection (herbicides, fungicides, and other pesticides), and information technology, or what is now called “digital farming.”
Seeds today are engineered to grow in particular soils and climates, and increasingly to perform in conjunction with specific crop protection products. Digital farming, aided by satellites, drones, and on-ground robots, is fast reaching the point where it can tell a farmer exactly what kind of seed to plant in each square inch of his field according to soil quality, moisture, drainage, sun, wind, and other factors — and then deliver precisely calibrated amounts of fertilizer and pesticide, timed to the need of each individual plant.
Both Bayer and Monsanto have significant capability in all three areas, but Bayer is particularly strong in crop protection and Monsanto is the world leader in designer seeds. Monsanto has also now become the largest company in the digital farming space, having spent the last several years buying up digital farming companies.
Horizontal mergers like this one — where each company has products competing head to head in the marketplace — have traditionally been of greatest concern to regulators because, after the merger, there is less price competition and less pressure to develop new and better products. Both effects are bad for consumers.
But the traditional solution of forcing companies to divest a few product lines — as with the planned sell-off of Bayer’s cotton, soy, and canola seeds businesses — misses the bigger picture of how quickly and profoundly the third element of modern farming, the digital dimension, is transforming agriculture. Whoever captures the digital dimension will very likely capture the lion’s share of customers as well — “capture” being the operative word here.
Remember when it was next to impossible to transfer documents between a Mac and PC? Imagine the position Bayer-Monsanto will be in when it has all the billions of data points on your farm stored on its digital platform, and has a large enough selection of seeds and crop protection products that it can limit its digital farming instructions exclusively to its own products, telling you which Bayer-Monsanto seed to plant in conjunction with which Bayer-Monsanto pesticide.
Neither company can do that now because neither has enough seed or crop protection products. Together they will have enough. And if the farmer objects, tough luck. He may or may not own the data from his own farm — that’s yet to be resolved — but the costs of changing to some other, likely incompatible data system will be highly discouraging and will increase with every season.
Another fact many antitrust observers miss, especially free marketers who generally oppose government intervention, is that competition in the seed and crop protection part of the farming sector has already been squeezed almost to death by government. It takes $136 million and 13 years for a GMO to be brought to market, and $286 million and 11 years for a pesticide. With barriers to entry into the market like these, there is simply no competition in this space from start-ups. After a merger of Bayer and Monsanto, only three major companies will be left competing, though Bayer-Monsanto will be so dominant that the word “competing” will become increasingly meaningless.
This Christmas, we should focus less on the antitrust aspects of the gaudy AT&T-Time Warner deal and instead hope that the industry that puts food on our table is still vibrant, innovative, and highly competitive in Christmases yet to come.
Daniel Oliver served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (1986-1990), general counsel of the Department of Agriculture (1983-1986). He is also a former executive editor of National Review and chairman emeritus of the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, a free market think tank.
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