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Monsanto Merger Sows Fears over Skewed Seed Market

A pending merger in the cotton-seed industry is prompting sharp legal and environmental criticisms of biotechnology in US agriculture.

The proposed merger would fuse the world's largest seed company, Monsanto, with one of the country's leading cotton-seed firms, Delta and Pine Land. Announced last year, the deal is now awaiting antitrust clearance from the Justice Department.

Consumer watchdogs tracking biotechnology's impacts want the federal government to intervene, arguing that the merger would come at the expense of agricultural diversity and the environment.

The US cotton-seed market is already highly concentrated. According to an analysis of industry and government agricultural data by the Center for Food Safety and the International Center for Technology Assessment, nearly 90 percent of US cotton acreage is planted with genetically engineered cotton-seed varieties, nearly all containing traits developed by Monsanto.

Biotech traits - developed by genetic manipulation of seeds - include enhanced protection against insects and "herbicide resistance," which enables heavier chemical spraying to kill weeds while sparing the crop.

The groups' report linked the expansion of genetically engineered cotton with a more than three-fold growth in cotton-seed prices from 1995 to 2005, as technology-related costs drove up seed prices for farmers.

Monsanto has criticized the report, arguing in a recent letter to Wired News that farmers flock to biotech cotton simply because "the technology works and provides them with real economic and environmental advantages."

But the report's author, Bill Freese, told The NewStandard dominant seed corporations have skewed the market, heavily promoting profitable engineered strains while limiting the availability of less expensive quality conventional seed.

The cost of biotechnology is also borne by the environment, Freese warned, as herbicide-resistant plants drive up pesticide use.

According to an analysis of government data by University of Tennessee researchers, use of the weed killer glyphosate - marketed as Roundup by Monsanto - increased by over 750 percent from 1997 to 2003, following the introduction of Monsanto's Roundup Ready cotton seeds. The report cites research linking heavy spraying of glyphosate with damage to soil and local amphibian populations, as well as the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Freese said conventional farms, especially organic crops, are vulnerable to "drift" of aerially sprayed herbicide, and cross-pollination from prevalent biotech crops.

The report predicts the Monsanto merger will accelerate the ongoing trend of consolidation in cotton farming, because herbicide-resistant strains makes it easier for large-scale cotton producers to expand by replacing human labor with intensive pesticide spraying.

With Monsanto rapidly penetrating the seed market in food crops, Freese said the company's tightening grasp over cotton should alarm both farmers and consumers. "We all have a stake in who produces the seeds that we depend on," he said. "It's very dangerous when one company gains this level of control over the seed supply."

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