There has been a sharp increase in planting of genetically modified ("GM") crops in the past decade and further expansion is expected in the United States as well as other countries, as well as in new crops. Firms in this industry have substantial economies of scale due to the high costs of research and development ("R&D). As a result, there have been many mergers and acquisitions, and there are now fewer firms in some of these functional areas. Research to develop genetically-engineered ("GE") traits is high cost, very risky, takes a substantial amount of time to develop, and is subject to a great deal of uncertainty regarding trait efficiency, government approvals, market acceptability, and prospective impacts of competitor traits. Firms can spend in excess of $100 million to develop a trait and, for varying reasons, not have it commercialized. On the other hand, traits may be developed that have a high degree of trait efficiency and, if other sources of uncertainty are reconciled, these traits may have substantial market penetration.
Firms in the agbiotechnology industry confront important strategic choices. The most important choices concern spending on R&D, how that money is spent, intellectual property ("IP") protection strategies, and technology distribution strategies. Different approaches have been taken to these strategic decisions, particularly regarding R&D spending and seed and trait distribution.
This article describes the dynamics of R&D investments, IP, and the structure of the seed distribution sector. These topics are crucially important in understanding the structure and conduct of the agriculture industry. Some of these issues are the subject of recent papers, pending litigation and investigations, and recently prompted a set of hearings by the Departments of Justice and Agriculture on competition in agriculture markets.
These issues also come at a very strategically important time for this industry, which is confronting several pressures. The first wave of GM traits is scheduled to come off-patent commencing in 2014. Second, a new set of traits is on verge of being commercialized. These are more prolific and no individual firm is dominant. Third, the major rivals are in legal proceedings regarding, among other matters, the terms of their contracts. Finally, concerns have been expressed about excessive market power and concentration.