What started off as an informative lecture as part of a campuswide summit on food turned into a town-hall type meeting between one University of Wisconsin professor and those in attendance Friday.
Peter Carstensen, a UW law professor, spoke to a crowded room at Memorial Union on antitrust and competition issues present in the agricultural sector today as part of the Day on Campus: Food Summit put on by the Wisconsin Alumni Association and College of Agriculture and Life Science.
Changing the flow of typical lectures, Carstensen told the audience to ask questions as they came to mind, and he would answer right away. As soon as Carstensen said this, someone made a comment, and from there the questions kept flowing.
While taking questions throughout the talk as opposed to the end prevented Carstensen from covering topics in-depth such as beef, pork, poultry and fruit, the questions touched on a number of issues including genetically modified seed and collusion in the dairy industry.
The main problem regarding genetically modified seed, Carstensen said, is the patent holder, in this case a company called Monsanto. It specializes in soybean, canola, corn and cottonseed, as well as small vegetables, its website said.
Monsanto’s seed is immune to damage from certain herbicides, which enables farmers to use those herbicides without fearing for their crops.
Despite the seeds’ benefits, Monsanto restricts farmers from replanting leftover seed, which is a traditional farming practice. Carstensen said he doesn’t agree with the restrictions.
“A number of us think that [prohibiting replanting] is not appropriate — that Monsanto should be simply collecting a royalty when you save and replant seed,” Carstensen said.
The result of forcing farmers to buy new seed every year is an increase in price, Carstensen said — one that toes the line of antitrust law.
Unlike the pharmaceutical drug industry whose patents allow competitors to use the technology for experimental purposes before the patent expires, the patent on genetically modified seed prohibits such usage.
Despite thinking companies such as Monsanto should collect a royalty for replanting seeds, Carstensen said patent law is different than antitrust law.
Moving to the dairy industry, Carstensen said the market is more competitive in Wisconsin because of cheese manufacturing, but referred to Dean Foods and its dominant control over the fluid milk industry in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
Carstensen also pointed to what he called the corruption of the milk marketing order system, citing how the prices of cheese and butter influence the price of milk.
Laura Daniels, a farmer and former student at UW, said she attended the Food Summit because she wanted to continue the discussion started after Michael Pollan visited UW in September 2009.
“As a farmer, one of the things that I worry about is.. .finding what’s common even though there’s lots of different views about agriculture and how we should grow food,” she said. “There are really some great commonalities and I think making sure there is a lot of competition in the marketplace is really one of them.”