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Competition in Agriculture Symposium: Comments of Scott Kieff, Geoff Manne, and Josh Wright

Regarding firm size and integration, it must be kept in mind that the agriculture industry in the U.S. has, for good reasons, moved beyond the historic, pastoral image of small family farms operating in quiet isolation, devoid of big business and modern technologies. The genetic traits that give modern seeds their value—traits that confer resistance to herbicide and high yields, for example—are often developed through processes that are technologically-advanced, time- and money-intensive, risky investments, and subject to various layers of regulation. It doesn’t take expertise in industrial organization to imagine why at least for some participants in this market these processes are likely to be more efficiently and effectively conducted within large agribusiness companies having enormous research and development budgets and significant expertise in managing complex business and legal operations, than they are by the somber couple depicted in the famous 1930 Grant Wood painting, “American Gothic.” Nor is such expertise required to imagine why complex contracting across firms, of any size, is likely to be of significant help in supporting the specialization and division of labor that is useful in allowing some businesses (even a small family farm is a business) to be good at planting and harvesting while others are good at inventing, investing, managing, developing, testing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing the next wave of innovative crop technologies. This requires on the one hand that the government give reliable enforcement to contracts and property rights whether tangible or intangible (extremely important in this industry are patents, trade secrets, and even trademarks), while on the other hand it allows firms wide flexibility to decide for themselves which of these contracts and property rights they would like to enter into or obtain pursuant to the applicable bodies of contract and property law.

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