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Rapid rise in seed prices draws U.S. scrutiny

During the economic crisis last year, the prices for many goods held steady or even dropped. But on American farms, the picture was far different, as farmers watched the price they paid for seeds skyrocket. Corn seed prices rose 32 percent; soybean seeds were up 24 percent.

Such price increases for seeds — the most important purchase a farmer makes each year — are part of an unprecedented climb that began more than a decade ago, stemming from the advent of genetically engineered crops and the rapid concentration in the seed industry that accompanied it.

The price increases have not only irritated many farmers, they have caught the attention of the Obama administration. The Justice Department began an antitrust investigation of the seed industry last year, with an apparent focus on Monsanto, which controls much of the market for the expensive bioengineered traits that make crops resistant to insect pests and herbicides.

The investigation is just one facet of a broader push by the Obama administration to take a closer look at competition — or the lack thereof — in agriculture, from the dairy industry to livestock to commodity crops, like corn and soybeans.

Aftershock measuring 7.2 shakes Chile during
inauguration

SANTIAGO, CHILE — At least three major aftershocks rocked central Chile on Thursday, striking minutes before its president-elect was sworn into office to take charge of a country still reeling from a devastating earthquake nearly two weeks ago.

Chile’s Navy rapidly issued a tsunami alert, and Chilean television carried reports of residents of coastal areas fleeing for higher ground. There were no immediate reports of damage, but in the capital of Santiago, 95 miles north of the epicenters, windows rattled, buildings trembled and cell phone service went down.

In the coastal city of Valparaiso, about 90 miles from the site of Thursday’s earthquakes, dignitaries who gathered for the inauguration of President Sebastian Pinera made nervous jokes glanced at the shuddering ceiling of the congressional building as the quakes hit, according to news reports.

Pinera, however, showed no sign of acknowledging the tremors, and continued to shake hands with leaders and supporters before taking the oath of office.

The first of the three largest aftershocks hit at 11:39 a.m., and with a magnitude of 7.2, was the strongest to hit since Chile was ravaged by an 8.8-magnitude quake on Feb. 27.

Obama to create export task force to push trade

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced a broad effort to promote American goods overseas, hoping to bolster competitiveness abroad and create jobs in the United States.

But trade specialists questioned whether the plan had the potential to double exports in five years and create 2 million jobs — the president’s goal — saying that it was not just a question of producing more goods to sell but an issue of overcoming stiff trade barriers while creating new markets.

Obama framed his plan as a means of jump-starting the sluggish economy. He called for increasing credit for small- and medium-sized businesses by $2 billion, easing restrictions on selling certain goods abroad, and establishing a Cabinet-level panel on exports.