Democratic presidential candidates pitched voters in this farm-heavy state on their plans to stir up competition in the agriculture industry and stem the conglomeration of corporate power in the U.S.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, as well as former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, took aim at Bayer AG’s more than $60 billion purchase of Monsanto Co., a deal unpopular with many farmers here.
“We have got to fight back against consolidation, and I’ll make you a promise: you put me in the White House and I will unwind the Bayer-Monsanto” deal, Ms. Warren told a group of farmers here Saturday.
The deal made Bayer the world’s biggest supplier of pesticides and seeds. A flurry of consolidation in the global crop seeds and chemicals market has worried U.S. growers, who are battling a crop glut that has crimped prices.
Candidates are eager to win the support of Iowa’s farmers, a powerful constituency in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation primary caucuses in February. The candidates are also betting their focus on antitrust can attract progressive voters generally uneasy with the concentration of wealth and the power of corporations more broadly.
Ms. Warren has pledged to break up “companies where mergers have reduced competition,” pointing to the Bayer-Monsanto deal in particular in her proposal outlined last week. She has also suggested a nationwide ban on foreign individuals or entities from purchasing farmland for the purpose of farming.
Ms. Klobuchar takes a more measured approach. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier in March, she said it was premature to call for breaking up big companies. But she has introduced several bills in Congress that would update U.S. antitrust law, including by tweaking legal standards to make it easier to challenge mergers successfully in court.
Introduced Saturday as “our neighbor to the north” at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Ms. Klobuchar pitched herself as a can-do Midwesterner who would be a seasoned advocate for rural America.
The Minnesotan said her antitrust proposals would spur competition in agriculture.
“We need to take on the power of these monopolies,” she said. “I just think we’re getting to the point where you know you’re not going to get a fair deal.”
Republicans have traditionally favored giving business a free rein, but some were skeptical of the Monsanto-Bayer deal. Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2016, pressed the Justice Department to study how the deal would affect competition. “Competition is critical in this sector. It is essential for the American farm economy,” Mr. Grassley said last year after the department ultimately cleared the deal.
In a statement Saturday evening, Bayer said the deal with Monsanto brings together a robust portfolio to offer more choices for farmers. The company also said there are hundreds of companies competing for farmers’ business.
The consolidation in corporate agriculture is playing out as U.S. growers in recent decades swallowed up acreage to survive a harsh downturn in crop prices, squeezing smaller operations in the process. Ms. Warren has argued that big agriculture buyers and sellers make it even harder for owners of smaller farms to get by.
“Small and even medium-sized farms get caught between the giants…that determine the price that the farmers are going to have to pay for seed,” Ms. Warren told reporters Friday. “On the other end, there may be only one or two buyers for farmers’ product, and so profits get sucked out in the other direction.”
That message has resonated in the nation’s heartland, where many farmers say trends in the industry are pushing farms to merge or fold.
“Extracting wealth, taking opportunities out of rural regions. That’s what this consolidation has done to us,” said Wes Shoemyer, a Missouri farmer and board member of Family Farm Action, a progressive nonprofit, at a different event in Storm Lake on Saturday.
President Trump appeared to back the Monsanto-Bayer deal after executives assured him the postmerger company would invest in the U.S. and maintain American jobs.
Mr. Trump has said his trade policies will boost farmers’ incomes, but some say they are feeling the pinch from his broad trade campaign against China and Beijing’s retaliation against American crops and meat. “The farmers love me. They voted for me,” he said last year in Iowa, a state he flipped into the GOP column in 2016. President Obama won the state twice.
Beyond agriculture, Democratic candidates and progressive voters have taken aim at large financial-services firms and tech giants.
Ms. Warren has also proposed breaking up Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another presidential hopeful, has long called for breaking up the largest U.S. banks — something other candidates also support.
Officials within the Justice Department’s antitrust division and the independent Federal Trade Commission are tasked with enforcing U.S. antitrust law.
Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, Mr. Trump’s appointee who runs the antitrust division, said at a conference Friday in Washington that antitrust proposals by presidential candidates are generally misguided, without naming specific candidates or policies. He said regulators must stake out firm positions based on legal arguments, adding that officials in his agency “can’t just walk into court and say company X should be broken up because it’s too big.”
A Justice Department spokesman said that the department is aware of the Democratic proposals but declined to comment on them.
Mark Kuhn, a third-generation soybean and corn farmer in Floyd County, Iowa, said Democratic candidates including Ms. Warren and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) have impressed him with their messages against big agriculture. Mr. Booker has proposed a moratorium on all corporate mergers.
Mr. Kuhn hasn’t decided whom he will support in the Iowa caucuses but liked what Ms. Warren had to say.
“She talked about a lot of issues that are just really, really important to me,” he said.
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