Today’s doom and gloom headlines often make us forget the amazing advances our nation has made over the past three decades – none more so than in the internationally vital agricultural sector.
When I left my post as the nation’s 21st secretary of agriculture in 1986, for instance, the average crop yield per acre in the United States was 33.3 bushels per acre for soybeans and 119.4 bushels per acre for corn. As of last year, thanks to the onset of almost revolutionary seed technologies, those yields rose to 39.7 bushels per acre for soybeans and 153.9 acres for corn.
I grow both crops on my family farm near Galesburg, Ill., about 200 miles south of Madison. That’s why I was more than a bit taken aback recently when the Department of Justice launched a series of workshops to discuss possible antitrust actions against some of our most innovative agricultural companies – with a prime emphasis on bio-seeds.
As a lifelong farmer, I can tell you that today’s gains in agricultural production would not have been possible without the super-grains engineered by such American companies as Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and others.
Just 15 years ago, farmers faced an epic struggle in fighting weeds that ravaged our soybean crops. We sprayed huge amounts of various herbicides on our fields but were still forced to pay people to pull weeds by hand. At the same time, we had to spray pesticides on our corn crops, but still lost corn yield to pesky insects.
Those actions, of course, were not environmentally friendly, but we had no providers of biotech seeds in those days.
Fortunately, today there is no shortage of biotech seeds to choose from. The most complicated part of the process, in fact, is deciding which type of seeds are the best matches for our farm. There are almost too many choices and too many companies competing for our business.
It’s true that today’s corn seed, like today’s cars, cost dramatically more than 15 years ago. But it’s well worth it. If antitrust investigators are worried about one or two companies dominating the market, they should know that we’re buying our seed from seven different producers this year.
In the end, farmers are picking seeds that yield the most, require less chemicals and labor, and reduce the number of passes tractors must make across a field.
While it’s true there are fewer players in many areas of American agriculture – chiefly because of mergers – we shouldn’t be operating on the shopworn theory that big is always necessarily bad. That theory overlooks that U.S. bio-seed companies are facing an increasingly crowded global marketplace. To compete on the international stage, bigness is essential to attract top scientists and fund the huge research programs needed to survive and prosper.
That’s especially important when you consider earth’s population is 6.7 billion and projected to surpass 9.7 billion by mid-century. I look forward to the day where bio-seed innovations create low-fertilizer fields that produce the abundant drought-tolerant crops needed to feed millions of malnourished people in the parched wastelands of Africa and Asia.
The Department of Justice and Congress should ensure existing anti-trust laws are enforced to the letter. But they should not give in to an “anti-big” impulse to penalize successful companies that have the wherewithal to invest in the technologies American farmers need to feed the world’s skyrocketing population.
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Illinois farmer, John R. Block was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan from 1981 to 1986.