ST. LOUIS (AP) — Monsanto Co. said Thursday that the Justice Department has requested more information on its soybean traits business, as the government continues to look into how it grants access to certain genes used to grow the bulk of corn and soybean crops in the U.S.
The world's biggest seed developer said the government wants to ensure that farmers and seed companies will continue to have access to the first-generation Roundup Ready trait once its patent expires in 2014. The Roundup Ready gene is used in such a wide variety of crops that its licensing agreements can have a massive influence on the marketplace.
Monsanto introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans in 1996. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical.
Last month, an Associated Press investigation uncovered contracts showing that Monsanto's business practices squeeze competitors, control smaller seed companies and protect its dominance over the genetically altered crops market.
Monsanto's Chief Deputy General Counsel Scott Partridge said in a statement that its practices are "fair, pro-competitive and in compliance with the law."
The St. Louis agricultural company said it continues to cooperate with the appropriate authorities and has given access to million of pages of documents related to the department's inquiries.
In December, Monsanto confirmed its Roundup Ready soybeans would still be available after the patent expires. The company's patented genes are inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S.
Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the Justice Department and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. The practices also are at the center of civil antitrust suits filed against Monsanto by its competitors, including a 2004 suit filed by Syngenta AG, that was settled with an agreement, and ongoing litigation filed this summer by DuPont in response to a Monsanto lawsuit.
Monsanto was considered a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It has continued to grow and become more powerful due to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys.