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Why Trump’s Antitrust Pick Is Great News for Pesticide Companies

Mother Jones

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The Trump administration appears ready to bless a pair of megamergers that will dramatically reshape the markets for seeds and pesticides. First, before he even took office, the president met with the CEOs of German chemical giant Bayer and US seed titan Monsanto, and boasted of the flimsy jobs plan they promised if their proposed merger goes through. Trump has also had chummy relations with chemical giant Dow, in the middle of its pending merger with erstwhile rival DuPont. This week, Trump announced his choice to lead the Department of Justice’s antitrust division: a lawyer/lobbyist who, for nearly three decades, has been shuffling through the revolving door between large corporations and the government agencies that shape and execute merger policy.

Makan Delrahim now serves as deputy counsel to Trump, helping shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch through the Senate. He moved to the White House from his perch as a partner at lobbying powerhouse Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. There, his recent clients include pharma giant Pfizer, the tobacco and real estate conglomerate Vector group, and casino player Caesars Entertainment. As International Business Times‘ David Sirota reported last week, Delrahim also recently lobbied on behalf of heath insurer Anthem as the company beseeched the Justice Department to approve its now-stalled proposal to merge with erstwhile rival Cigna. (If he’s confirmed, Delrahim will lead the very office he lobbied on retainer for Anthem—though he’ll likely have to recuse himself from any decision involving Anthem.)

Before his stint as a lobbyist, Delrahim served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Antitrust Division under President George W. Bush in the early 2000s, and of Bush’s Antitrust Modernization Commission until 2007.

Delrahim is by all accounts a devoted conservative who jumped on the Trump train relatively early. In a March 2016 New York Post, he noted that Trump was not his first choice for president, but urged voters to “coalesce” around Trump as he began to dominate the Republican primaries. “I’m willing to take my chances with The Donald,” he declared, citing the death of right-wing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the need for a like-minded replacement.

Like Scalia, Delrahim is widely viewed as friendly to mergers. In a memorandum to clients, the corporate law firm Davis Polk characterized him as “in line with previous Republican-appointed” DOJ antitrust enforcers, hewing to a “pragmatic, economically based approach to antitrust enforcement,” wary of “over-zealous enforcers and courts,” and attuned to the “need to promote and preserve efficiency-maximizing collaborations” among corporations. Such views mark a “significant shift from the view expressed” by President Barack Obama’s antitrust enforcers, who, the law firm noted, expressed skepticism about “proclaimed benefits and efficiencies” of mergers.

Over the next several months, the Trump DOJ will have to vet a slew of proposed corporate megamergers, including two that involve the agribusiness space: the planned marriage of two US chemical behemoths, and the German chemical giant Bayer’s takeover of US seed titan Monsanto.

The ag deals Delrahim will be charged with vetting—Dow-DuPont and Bayer-Monsanto—have been shrouded in regulatory uncertainty since they were first announced, because they would lead to an extraordinary concentration in seeds, genetically modified traits, and pesticides. If the deals go through, three companies—Dow-DuPont, Bayer-Monsanto, plus Syngenta (itself recently taken over by a Chinese chemical conglomerate)—would sell about 59 percent of the entire globe’s seeds and 64 percent of its pesticides. Here in the United States, the consolidation would be even more severe. Bayer-Monsanto alone would own nearly 60 percent of the US cottonseed market; between them, Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-DuPont would sell 75 percent of the corn seeds planted by US farmers and 64 percent of soybean seeds.

As I noted here, these companies are all hotly marketing “precision agriculture” services, where they crunch data picked up from farmers’ field equipment and provide them with advice on what seed varieties to plant and pesticides to apply. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant laid out the strategy in a conference call with investors a few months before the Bayer deal. Monsanto, he said, is pursuing an “integrated solution strategy” that creates a one-stop shop for “seeds, traits, chemistry, and data science tools to farmers around the world.” Dow, DuPont, and Syngenta have all rolled out their own, similarly closed-loop precision-ag arms. These arrangements give the tiny field of players even incentive to create, say, crop varieties that work only with one of their own proprietary pesticides.

One possibility is that the Department of Justice could approve the deals, on condition that the companies sell off overlapping business segments. The European Union recently signed off on the Dow-DuPont merger, after the companies agreed to what Bloomberg called “hefty concessions, including the sale of large parts of DuPont’s global pesticide business.” But such divestitures don’t automatically reduce consolidation. German chemical titan BASF, itself a large player in pesticides, has “expressed interest in snapping up some of the companies’ divested assets,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, if Bayer and Monsanto are forced to sell off some business lines to push their deal through, both BASF and Syngenta are ready to pounce on those juicy morsels, Bloomberg reports.

Also, such sell-offs don’t address the fact if the deals go through, what had been four R&D programs will be reduced to two, giving “short shrift to innovation competition,” says Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute. Moss argues that such hyperconsolidation limits farmers’ choices in the seed and chemical markets, driving up prices. Eventually, higher costs for these vital farm inputs will be passed on to consumers.


Why Trump’s Antitrust Pick Is Great News for Pesticide Companies

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The Midwest’s Vast Farms Are Losing a Ton of Money This Year

Mother Jones

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Think you have it tough at work? Consider the plight of the Midwest’s corn and soybean farmers. They churn out the basic raw materials of our food system: the stuff that gets turned into animal feed, sweetener, cooking fat, and even a substantial amount of our car fuel. What do they get for their trouble? According to a stunning analysis (PDF) by Iowa State ag economist Chad Hart, crop prices have fallen so low (a bumper crop has driven down corn prices to their lowest level since 2006), and input costs (think seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) have gotten so high, that they’re losing $225 per acre of corn and $100 per acre of soybeans. So if you’re an Iowa farmer with a 2,000-acre farm, and you planted it half and half in these two dominant crops, you stand to lose $325,000 on this year’s harvest.

Over on Big Picture Agriculture—the excellent blog that alerted me to Hart’s assessment—Kay McDonald wonders: “Is organic corn the way to go next year?” She points out organic corn receives a large premium in the market, and key input costs—seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides—are much lower, making the economics better.

Another possibility is one I’ve been banging on about for years: why not take some of the Midwest’s vast stock of farmland—say, 10 percent?—and devote it to vegetable and fruit production? And take another slice of it and bring it back to perennial grass for pasture-based beef and pork production? Both vegetables and pastured meat deliver much more income pre acre than commodity corn and soybeans, once the systems are up and running and the infrastructure in place. And considering how much of our produce comes from drought-stricken California, that would likely be a wise move from a food security standpoint.

Alas, none of this is likely to happen, at least not anytime soon. That’s because crop subsidies, enshrined by the farm bill signed in February, will likely wipe out much of the huge gap between farmers’ costs and what the market gives them. According to Bloomberg, taxpayers are set to pay “billions of dollars more to subsidize farmers than anticipated just months ago,” before crop prices plunged.

I don’t begrudge federal support for farming. As I argued in a post last year, large-scale commodity farming is a vicious business—farmers are caught in a vice between a small handful of buyers (Archers Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge) that are always looking to drive crop prices down, and a small handful of input suppliers (Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, etc) always looking to push the price of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides up. It’s no wonder, as Iowa State’s Hart has shown, that the “long run profitability” of such farming is “zero.”

But as it’s structured now, the subsidy system keeps farmers chugging along on the corn-soy treadmill. Meanwhile, transitioning to organic ag and diversifying crops to include vegetables and pastured meat would also require much more hands-on labor and a new set of skills for Midwestern farmers, who have been operating in a corn-soy-chemical system for decades. It would also require the rebuilding of infrastructure—small-scale slaughterhouses, canneries, cold storage, etc.—that were dismantled as corn and soy came to dominance. Supporting such a transition, and not propping up an unhealthy food system suffused with cheap corn and soy, seems like a good use of the billions of federal dollars that are about to be spent.

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The Midwest’s Vast Farms Are Losing a Ton of Money This Year

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EPA: Those Bee-Killing Pesticides? They’re Actually Pretty Useless

Mother Jones

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So, there’s this widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, marketed by chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, that have emerged as a prime suspect in honeybee collapse, and may also be harming birds and water-borne critters. But at least they provide benefits to farmers, right?

Well, not soybean farmers, according to a blunt economic assessment released Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF). Conclusion: “There are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans.”

Wait, what?

The report goes on: “This analysis provides evidence that US soybean growers derive limited to no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments in most instances.”

Hmmm. But at least they’re better for farmers than no pesticide at all?

Nope: “Published data indicate that most usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not protect soybean yield any better than doing no pest control.”


The EPA notes that in recent years, US farmers have been planting on average 76 million acres of soybeans each season. Of those acres, an average 31 percent are planted in seeds treated with neonics—that is, farmers buy treated seeds, which suffuse the soybean plants with the chemical as they grow. So that’s about 24 million acres of neonic-treated seeds—an area equal in size to the state of Indiana. Why would farmers pay up for a seed treatment that doesn’t do them any good, yet may be doing considerable harm to pollinators and birds? The EPA report has insights: “data from researchers and extension experts … indicate that some growers currently have some difficulty obtaining untreated seed.” The report points to one small poll that found 45 percent of respondents reported finding non-treated seeds “difficult to obtain” or “not available.”

Another reason may be marketing. Syngenta, for example, promotes its “CruiserMaxx” seed treatment for soybeans, which combines a neonic insecticide with two different fungicides. The pitch: “Promotes better emergence, faster speed to canopy, improved vigor and higher yield potential.
Protects against damaging chewing and sucking insect pests. … Increases yield even under low insect pressure.”

Only one US crop is planted more abundantly than soybeans: corn, which typically covers around 90 million acres. According to Purdue entomologist Christian Krupke, “virtually all” of it is from neonic-treated seeds. That’s a land mass just 10 percent smaller than California. You have to wonder what bang those farmers are getting for their buck. I have a query into the EPA to see whether it has plans to conduct a similar assessment for corn. Meanwhile, this March 2014 Center for Food Safety research report, which was reviewed by Krupke and Jonathan Lundgren, a research entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture, found that the bee-killing pesticides offer at best limited benefits to corn farmers, too.

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EPA: Those Bee-Killing Pesticides? They’re Actually Pretty Useless

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Hawaii lawmakers move to block local bans on GMOs, pesticides

Hawaii lawmakers move to block local bans on GMOs, pesticides


Late last year, the Kauai and Hawaii County councils passed laws restricting the use of pesticides and experimental GMOs on their slices of Hawaiian paradise. But those laws could soon be sunk by state lawmakers.

Hawaii County’s rules ban biotech giants from the island and prohibit the new planting of GMO crops (farmers who already grow GMO crops may continue doing so). Kauai’s rules require disclosures from anyone growing GMOs or spraying agricultural pesticides and the creation of pesticide-free buffer zones near schools, parks, hospitals, and homes.

Enter House Bill 2506. Hawaii has long been a haven for scientists conducting trials for Monsanto, Syngenta, and other agricultural giants — and the bill aims to keep it that way. If passed and signed, it would block local governments from enacting their own agricultural rules.

“No law, ordinance, or resolution of any unit of local government shall be enacted that abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production, and ranching practices not prohibited by federal or state law, rules, or regulations,” the bill states.

If you were to glance at the legislation, you could be forgiven for thinking it was designed to help Farmer Bob continue tilling his land despite opposition from NIMBY new neighbors. From the bill:

The legislature finds that during the last several decades, population growth and migration to Hawaii has resulted in urban encroachment into rural areas traditionally reserved for agricultural activity. This intrusion brings inevitable conflict when new neighbors face dust, pesticide use, noise, and other activity typical of farming operations.

The purpose of this Act is to protect the farmer’s freedom to farm and promote lawful and proven agricultural activities by bona fide farmers that are consistent with long-standing state and federal laws, rules, and regulations.

Why are state lawmakers so eager to quash the anti-GMO laws? Truthout has some insight:

During the 2012 election cycle, Monsanto and two lobbyists that represent the company were among the top 15 donors to Sen. Clarence Nishihara, the bill’s main sponsor in the state Senate, according to state records. During the same election year, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, another sponsor in the Senate, received a combined $3,650 of donations from Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow Chemical and an additional $5,450 from Monsanto lobbyists and industry representatives.

The biotech heavyweights aren’t waiting for state lawmakers to protect their experimental operations. They recently filed a lawsuit against the County of Kauai, alleging that it has been “irrationally” restricted from operating within “arbitrarily drawn” zones. “The Bill also imposes unwarranted and burdensome disclosure requirements relating to pesticide usage and GM crops that compromise Plaintiffs’ confidential commercial information,” the complaint reads.

For now, it seems Hawaiian citizens can’t say “aloha” to GMOs just yet — or at least without a court battle.

Hawaii’s GMO War Headed to Honolulu and Federal Court, Truthout

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.

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Hawaii lawmakers move to block local bans on GMOs, pesticides

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Syngenta to take a continent to court to upend pesticide ban

Syngenta to take a continent to court to upend pesticide ban


Dead bees? Who cares?

Syngenta is preparing to spray its lawyerly might all over Europe in a bid to be allowed to keep killing bees.

The agro-chemical giant announced Tuesday that it would haul the European Commission before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg in an effort to block the looming suspension of its neonic insecticide thiamethoxam — aka Cruiser.

The commission voted earlier this year in favor of a two-year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, beginning in December, because scientists have found that they slaughter the bees that suckle at the stamen of treated plants.

Syngenta’s lawyers and executives claim that the company’s product does no such thing — even though killing insects is exactly what it’s designed to do. From an AFP report:

“The Commission took the decision on the basis of a flawed process, an inaccurate and incomplete assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and without the full support of EU Member States,” the company insisted. …

Syngenta said the EU suspension was causing deep concern among farmers, who once the two-year-ban takes effect in December will need to replace “an extremely effective, low dose product (with) much less sustainable alternatives.”

Sustainable, you say? Not many things could be more critical to a sustainable food supply than thriving pollinators.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.

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Syngenta to take a continent to court to upend pesticide ban

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Pesticide makers want you to save the bees

Pesticide makers want you to save the bees

BayerBee killer.

Not only do manufacturers of bee-killing pesticides still insist that their products should be sold — now they are saying that everybody else needs to be doing more to help save the bees.

Syngenta and Bayer say that their poisonous products do not kill bees, despite a bevy of evidence suggesting otherwise. (The complex problem of colony collapse disorder, in which the pesticides are heavily implicated, is getting worse, by the way — not better.) Their neonicotinoid-based pesticides may soon be outlawed soon by the European Commission, and beekeepers and activists are suing the EPA as they push for a similar ban here.

But the chemical companies want us to know that they care deeply about these pollinators. And they have kind-heartedly published a plan they think could help the rest of us boost bee populations.

After all, if neonicotinoids are banned, they say, then we may never truly understand how they affect bees. Imagine living without that kind of knowledge.

From Reuters:

Syngenta and Bayer, which say harmful effects of the pesticides on bees are unproven and that a ban would deal a blow to the EU economy, proposed a plan that includes the creation of more flowering field margins to provide habitats for bees.

They also proposed a field monitoring program to detect the neonicotinoids pesticides blamed for the decline of honeybees, measures to limit the exposure of bees to the products and more research into the impact of parasites and viruses.

“This comprehensive plan will bring valuable insights into the area of bee health, whereas a ban on neonicotinoids would simply close the door to understanding the problem,” Syngenta Chief Operating Officer John Atkin said in a statement.

All you organic gardeners and pollinator lovers, consider yourselves called out: Pesticide-producing corporations say you need to do more to help save the bees that they are killing. Consider volunteering for a bee monitoring program or something.

John Upton is a science aficionado and green news junkie who


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