(Recasts with companies’ response, adds comment from BASF)
By Kelsey Johnson and Arundhati Sarkar
Feb 6 (Reuters) - Major agriculture companies said on Thursday they would cooperate with a Canadian Competition Bureau antitrust probe sparked by allegations that certain businesses tried to block an online farm-supply startup from operating in Western Canada.
The Canadian regulator confirmed earlier Thursday an inquiry was underway, but did not cite the companies being investigated.
Court documents filed on Jan. 30 in Canadian federal court show Bayer AG, Corteva Inc and BASF were among those under scrutiny following a complaint from California-based online retailer Farmers Business Network Inc (FBN).
Farm-supply wholesalers, including Cargill Inc and Univar Solutions Inc are also being probed, the documents show, confirming an earlier Wall Street Journal report.
The Competition Bureau told the federal court it was seeking records and communications from the seed, pesticide and wholesaling companies which are alleged to have stopped supplying FBN’s newly acquired Canadian business in 2018. The bureau also said it appeared some company officials might have urged farmers and others in the industry not to do business with FBN.
Founded in 2014, FBN is developing an online marketplace for farmers to order crop inputs like pesticides, seed and other agricultural supplies. The company, which has been selling crop inputs through its e-commerce platform in the United States since 2016, entered Canada in November 2017.
The regulator told the court it believed the alleged conduct by the agriculture companies under inquiry prevents FBN from selling branded crop inputs.
“The foregoing may impede or delay FBN’s successful expansion into the Canadian market place and/or may cause FBN to exit the Canadian market place altogether,” the regulator wrote in its court filings.
BASF Canada, the Canadian affiliate of the German-based chemicals company BASF SE, said in a statement it believed the unit had not contravened Canadian competition legislation and was confident it could address any regulatory concerns.
U.S. seeds and agricultural chemicals maker Corteva, Bayer and Cargill issued statements saying they would cooperate with the investigation.
Reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa and Arundhati Sarkar in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Shanti Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D'Silva, Jonathan Oatis and Richard Chang