A group of southern Idaho farmers filed a class-action antitrust complaint in March against some of the biggest seed and fertilizer companies in the world.
The farming operations are all in the Rupert area, and they grow a number of crops, such as sugar beets, potatoes, alfalfa and corn. In the complaint, the farmers say the companies, including Bayer, Corteva, BASF and Syngenta, conspired with wholesalers and retailers to inflate the cost of seeds, herbicides and fertilizers, otherwise known as crop inputs.
“The problem that has been identified is a set of marketing practices by these large companies,” said Peter Carstensen, a retired law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in antitrust law. Those in turn, the plaintiffs argue, deny farmers access to accurate price information on the inputs, forcing them to pay artificially high prices, and, in some cases, driving them out of business.
The farmers also allege the companies collectively refused to sell to the Farmers Business Network, an e-commerce platform which would’ve allowed them more price information.
The Associated Press first reported on the Idaho lawsuit. A couple very similar complaints were filed earlier this year in Illinois, also regarding crop inputs, and they follow a pattern of antitrust action in other agricultural sectors, like pork and beef processing
Austin Frerick, an agricultural antitrust researcher at Yale University, said consolidation across the food system is driving the trend.
“We’re just seeing all these effects of this era of concentration, and what it means,” he said.
Four of the companies named in the lawsuit control a vast share of the seed and herbicide markets. The complaint also says the top four nitrogen fertilizer companies control more than two-thirds of the global market.
The Biden Administration has indicated interest in taking on anti-competitive action in the tech sector, so Frerick said he’ll be watching to see if the federal government steps up when it comes to agriculture.
Carstensen, who has followed numerous agricultural antitrust cases, said they can take a while. The plaintiffs need to establish that harm has been done and they also have to gather a “class” of farmers who’ve felt that harm equally.
Two companies named in the complaint told the Associated Press the allegations are not true.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio