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While agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. awaits the decision by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division on its proposed $1.5 billion cash merger with Delta & Pine Land, the largest cottonseed producer in the United States, opponents of the merger are hitting the ground hard, pushing Congress and the DOJ to heavily scrutinize the proposed deal. If Monsanto is given antitrust clearance to acquire the seed company, it could signal the creation of a powerhouse in the agribusiness industry, which has some small farmers and Monsanto’s biggest competitor, DuPont, on edge. “If the deals go through, there’s no competition for seeds, something all farmers rely on,” says John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, an 80,000-member group of small farmers that is lobbying Congress to hold hearings on the merger. They think hearings could help thwart the deal. DuPont is also using its Washington muscle to influence the DOJ’s review. “We’re asking all the appropriate authorities to take a closer look at it. We’re asking for a thorough investigation,” DuPont spokesman Doyle Karr says, adding that the company is working with attorneys general from several states. It isn’t the first time Monsanto has tried to buy the seed company. Almost 10 years ago, Monsanto’s attempts were stalled amid antitrust concerns. The deal was cancelled because of regulatory delays. But this time around, Monsanto is counting on a friendlier Justice Department to grease the wheels on its merger. Despite talks of how the merger would create a monopoly, Monsanto says its acquisition of Delta & Pine Land would signal “a new day in the cotton industry.” “Cotton is one of Monsanto’s strategic crops. We do a lot of outreach with cotton growers and corn and soybean growers,” says Lori Fisher, a Monsanto spokeswoman. “We are aware that there are some competitors who are trying to create an illusion of grass-roots opposition to the transaction. If our farmers don’t succeed, then we don’t succeed, either.” MERGER OBJECTIONS With his black pea jacket hanging over his left arm, Boyd, a soybean, corn, and wheat farmer, adjusts the collar of his gray pinstriped blazer, opens his arms wide, and points to a patch of grass outside the U.S. Capitol building. With some genetically modified seeds, says Boyd, who drove into Washington from his Baskerville, Va., farm, he could grow something in that small space in just a few days. With regular seeds, it would take more money, resources, and time, he says. And with the proposed merger, that’s a potential problem that Boyd foresees for smaller farmers. “We’re concerned that with the loss of competition in genetically modified seeds, the price will skyrocket and we won’t have any other options to choose from,” Boyd says. That’s why Boyd and his association of small farmers met with House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) last week to call for an oversight hearing on how the merger will affect minority farmers. He says if the Justice Department sees that a hearing on the merger is going on, it might take other things into consideration. Boyd says he is optimistic that the hearings will happen. “Let’s get all the players in the game in front of Congress so everyone can see who’s going to be affected. It’s not just about big companies making money. There are small farmers, the little guys all over the world, who will be affected.” And minority farmers, who over the years have struggled in the court system to level the playing field for farm subsidies, will find it harder than some other farmers to cope with the move, Boyd says. “It’s going to go from bad to worse for us,” he says. In 1999, the Department of Agriculture settled the government’s largest civil-rights class action lawsuit after it found that black farmers had to wait three times longer for loans and subsidies than white farmers did, resulting in black farmers losing their land. Boyd is also working to resolve cases from that 1999 settlement. Conyers has worked with the National Black Farmers Association in the past on obtaining relief for late filers in that claims process. And though there have not been any official talks yet of a congressional hearing, a host of senators have already expressed their concern over the proposed merger. In a letter sent last September to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Barnett of the Antitrust Division, 17 lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, expressed their hesitation over the merger and urged the DOJ to take it seriously. “We believe that this transaction raises very important competition and agriculture-policy issues and should be examined carefully,” reads the letter, signed by members including Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), and Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.). “We urge the reviewing agency to carefully examine this merger to protect competition and innovation in this very important sector of our nation’s economy.” While Boyd is leading grass-roots lobbying efforts and DuPont is using its in-house counsel along with lobbyists from Dickstein Shapiro — including former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) — to fight the merger, Monsanto continues to field questions from the Justice Department, which recently requested more of the company’s filings. Though opponents say the merger could create a monopoly in the industry, Monsanto’s Fisher says she has heard “that the vast majority of farmers are either neutral or positive on this issue.” “We are talking to the DOJ, as they are the regulatory body charged with taking a look at the transaction,” Fisher says. “We are talking to members of Congress who might have questions regarding the merger. This is ongoing.” Monsanto’s acquisition of Delta & Pine Land could mean bad business for DuPont, which has been working with Delta & Pine Land in developing a herbicide-resistant trait for corn and soybeans. Since the announcement of the merger last fall, DuPont has been in constant communication with the Justice Department and several attorneys general, trying to push a thorough investigation of the impact of the proposed merger on businesses and farmers, Dupont’s Karr says. Last year, DuPont spent about $850,000 lobbying on issues regarding agriculture and the development of fuel cells and titanium, according to Senate lobbying reports. Monsanto claims that if the merger is successful, it will promote “breeding to give cotton farmers who plant Delta and Pine Land’s cottonseed varieties more choices.” It also plans to sell its smaller cottonseed company, Stoneville, as part of the merger deal. If the merger falls through, Monsanto will have to dish out $600 million to Delta & Pine Land as part of a legal agreement. LONE VOICE Though Boyd is the leading voice for thousands of minority farmers, the American Farm Bureau Federation says it hasn’t been inundated with calls from small, or large, farmers. “We have not had any farmer express concern to us about the merger,” says Mary Kay Thatcher, the federation’s director of public policy. She says for the federation to take a stance on the merger’s potential anti-competitiveness, farmers have to come with clear examples of how they will be negatively affected. “There can’t just be �I don’t like such and such merger occurring’ without a reason why and without showing how it will drive up prices,” Thatcher says. But Boyd says he’s heard plenty of noise from farmers and will continue to leave his farm and tractor to take on issues that could be detrimental to the livelihoods of those like him. Though mere political pressure may not play a role in the Justice Department’s final decision, it might pay off if Boyd’s efforts in pushing Congress to hold hearings on the merger are a success, says Albert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute. “Holding hearings is a definite way of getting the Justice Department’s attention. It would mean they know they are being watched closely and that the decision they come out with will be greatly scrutinized,” Foer says. “The DOJ’s record so far in the last couple of years has been less than aggressive, so a lot of people are watching this particular case because it has a long-term effect regarding patents and Monsanto’s ability to create a powerhouse that would make it difficult for others to compete.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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