There has been mixed news for the agrochemical giant Monsanto recently. On the one hand, there was the surprise announcement on June 1 by company spokesman Brandon Mitchener: “We are no longer working on lobbying for more cultivation in Europe… Currently we do not plan to apply for the approval of new genetically modified crops.”
The embattled corporation has decided to stop tilting against the windmill of European resistance to its controversial biotech seeds. Eight EU nations have already prohibited GM (genetically modified) cultivation on their territory and banned the import of genetically modified foods from abroad.
But Monsanto’s prospects in the United States took a very different turn last month when the US Supreme Court ordered Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman to pay Monsanto over $80,000 for planting its GM soybean seeds. Bowman had purchased the seeds from a grain elevator rather than from Monsanto itself, as their corporate contract requires. The seeds had been saved from an earlier crop.
For as long as humans have been growing food, farmers have saved seeds from their harvest to sow the following year. But Monsanto and other big seed companies have changed the rules of the game. They have successfully argued that they spend millions of dollars developing new crop varieties and that these products should be treated as proprietary inventions with full patent protection. Just as one can’t legally reproduce a CD or DVD, farmers are now prohibited from copying the GM seeds that they purchase from companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta.
In one sense, these corporations no longer sell seeds – they lease them, requiring farmers to renew their lease with every subsequent growing season. Monsanto itself compares its GM seeds to rental cars. When you are finished using them, rights revert to the owner of the “intellectual property” contained within the seed.
Some farmers have saved their seeds anyway (called “brown bagging”), in some cases to save money, in others because they don’t like the big companies telling them how to farm. Monsanto has responded with an all-out effort to track down the brown baggers and prosecute them as an example to others who might be tempted to violate its patent. By aggressively enforcing its “no replant policy,” Monsanto has initiated a permanent low-grade war against farmers. At the time of this writing, the company had not responded to emailed questions about its seed saving policies.
“I don’t know of [another] company that chooses to sue its own customer base,” Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety told Vanity Fair Magazine. “It’s a very bizarre business strategy.”
Yet the strategy appears to be working. Over 90 percent of the soybeans, corn, canola and cotton grown in the United States are patented genetically modified organisms (commonly known as GMOs). The soybean variety that Bowman planted has proved popular with farmers because it has been modified to survive multiple sprayings by Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide Roundup, whose active agent is glyphosate. While Monsanto claims that GMOs increase crop yields, there is little evidence that this is the case. The chemical giant turned seed company also claims that the new technology decreases the need for agrochemicals. Yet 85 percent of all GM crops are bred to be herbicide resistant, which has meant that pesticide use is increasing as a result of the spread of GM crops. What GMOs were designed to do – and indeed accomplish – is create plants that can be grown efficiently in the chemical-intensive large scale monocultures that dominate American agriculture.
But the dominance of GMOs has come at a cost. In addition to the uncertain environmental impacts of the GMOs and the chemicals that are used to grow them as well as the possible negative health impacts of eating genetically modified foods, their production is sowing seeds of conflict in America’s rural heartland. Worldwatch Institute says that the GMO regime has initiated a “new era of feudalism,” no longer by wealthy landowners, but by powerful multinationals who have consolidated their control over the lives and practices of farmers everywhere.
Like the old feudalism, the new one is backed by the iron fist of the law. Bowman is just one of the untold thousands of farmers who have run afoul of Monsanto’s legal department in recent years. You don’t even need to be a farmer to be targeted by the multinational. Ask Gary Rinehart.
As reported in 2008 in Vanity Fair, Rinehart was standing behind the counter at the Fair Deal, an old-fashioned country store that he owns in Eagleville, Missouri, when a man strode in and accused him – in front of his customers – of illegally planting patented seeds. “Monsanto is big,” the stranger announced. “You can’t win. We will get you. You will pay.”
It must have seemed like a bad joke to Rinehart, who owns no farmland and doesn’t plant seeds. He doesn’t even sell them. The shopkeeper told the obnoxious stranger to get the hell out of his store. But it didn’t end there. Some weeks later Rinehart was served with court papers from Monsanto which was suing him for sowing second-generation seeds, which it said were produced from Monsanto’s genetic stock.
Rinehart fared better than Bowman. He easily won his case against America’s largest seed company. Everyone in town – including the judge – knew that Rinehart was not a farmer. Even Monsanto eventually realized that it had targeted the wrong man. But they didn’t send him a letter of apology, or offer to pay his lawyer’s fees. Rinehart never heard from the company again.
“I don’t know how they get away with it,” Rinehart told Vanity Fair. “If I tried to do something like that it would be bad news. I felt like I was in another country.”
Sadly, Rinehart is hardly alone in feeling like a character in a middle-American Kafka novel. Monsanto boasts one of the largest corporate security operations in the world, with agents working both openly and undercover in rural counties throughout the United States and Canada. Monsanto’s investigators show up at front doors, and in some cases in the middle of farmers fields, making accusations, brandishing surveillance photos and demanding to see the farmer’s private records or to be handed over their hard drives.
Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), told Truthout that these investigators will say things like, “Monsanto knows that you are saving Roundup Ready seeds, and if you don’t sign these information-release forms, Monsanto is going to come after you and take your farm or take you for all you’re worth.”
Of the hundreds of cases that Monsanto pursues every year “the great majority end in out-of-court settlements,” Freese said. “Farmers are terrified of standing up to the multinational and losing everything.”
The litigious corporation claims that it has transformed the way farming is done and that big changes require tough action. “This is part of the agricultural revolution, and any revolution is painful,” Karen Marshall, a spokeswoman for Monsanto in St. Louis told the Washington Post in 1999. “But the technology is good technology.”
In the effort to police its “revolution,” Monsanto does not limit itself to suing errant farmers. It also monitors farmer’s co-ops, silo owners, seed-sellers, virtually anyone who has dealings with their patented seeds. And it employs tactics that may occasionally put it on the wrong side of the law. Iowa corn farmer Scott McAllister told Daily Finance that company investigators broke into his house, tapped his phones and “tailed his vehicles,” charges which company spokesman Mica Veihman denied. But McAllister’s allegations of Monsanto’s extralegal intimidation of farmers is hardly unique.
Debbie Barker with the public interest organization Save Our Seeds alleges in a 2013 report issued jointly by her group and the Center for Food Safety that a Monsanto agent forged the signature of Anthony Parr, an Illinois seed-cleaner, in an effort to convict him of “aiding and abetting” farmers by processing their seeds for replanting.
Seed cleaners like Parr remove chaff and weed seed from harvested seed. Parr said that he was not aware that the seeds he cleaned were Monsanto’s. Nevertheless, he racked up over $25,000 in legal fees before even setting foot in a courtroom and, like so many others, reluctantly settled out of court. Parr lost almost 90 percent of his former customers, who were afraid that associating with the hapless seed-cleaner would lead to prosecution against them as well.
Monsanto has spared no expense in its effort to nab patent violators. As early as 2003, the corporation had a department of 75 employees (dubbed “the gene police”) with a budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of pursuing farmers for patent infringement, according to the Center for Food Safety/Save Our Seeds report. It has also hired a private investigation firm, McDowell & Associates in Saint Louis. This investment has produced ample returns over the years. An analysis by the Center for Food Safety used Monsanto’s own records to estimate that, as of 2006, farmers had paid the company an estimated $85 to $160 million in out-of-court settlements.
Monsanto’s investigatory and prosecutorial efforts are likely even larger today. However, the company no longer publishes this information, and they recently withdrew the data which CFS used to make their estimate from its Internet site. [See page 6 of PDF.]
In its war against “seed pirates,” Monsanto employs methods that are better known in law enforcement and military intelligence than in the world of farming. Monsanto analyzes satellite images, USDA planting data and bank records in its effort to track down errant farmers. Freese told Truthout that Monsanto agents sometimes pretend that they are conducting surveys of seed and chemical purchases and impersonate farmers or surveyors. Freese described one incident in Illinois, where a Monsanto investigator bragged that the company routinely hires retired farmers to pose as seed sellers in an effort to nab unsuspecting buyers in sting-type operations. Monsanto also has its own toll-free tip-line (1-800-ROUNDUP) where farmers are invited to inform on their neighbors, as thousands have reportedly already done.
“Instead of helping each other with barn-raisings and equipment sharing,” a CFS report states, “those caught saving seed, a practice that is hundreds of years old, were turned into ‘spies’ against their neighbors, replacing the atmosphere of cooperation with one of distrust and suspicion.” Critics accuse the company of fraying the delicate social fabric which holds farming communities together.
Saskatchewan Canola farmer Percy Schmeiser was even more direct when he spoke to The Washington Post in 1999 about what he said farmers in his area called “a reign of terror … Everyone’s looking at each other and asking, ‘Did my neighbor say something?'”
In a now legendary incident, Schmeiser’s fields were contaminated by seeds from a neighbor’s genetically modified Roundup Ready canola plants, which had blown onto his land. When the farmer, who was the subject of the 2009 film “David Versus Monsanto,” saved the seeds from these “accidental migrants” for replanting, Monsanto sued him for patent infringement and won the case but received no damages, since the court determined that Schmeiser had gained no economic benefit from the incident. Later Schmeiser countersued Monsanto for “libel, trespass, and contamination of his fields with Roundup Ready Canola.” But that case was dismissed.
Schmeiser, who reportedly spent more than $400,000 on legal fees, says he can no longer use his strain of canola, which took him 50 years to develop, because he cannot prove that it doesn’t include the Roundup Ready gene.
Organic farmers complain that the drift of pollen and seeds from GMO fields invade their own crops, which is increasingly making it difficult for them to maintain their organic standards.
Thierry Vrain, a former research scientist for Agriculture Canada noted on the Food Revolution Network, “Genetic pollution is so prevalent in North and South America where GM crops are grown that the fields of conventional and organic growers are regularly contaminated with engineered pollen and losing certification. The canola and flax export market from Canada to Europe (hundreds of millions of dollars) were recently lost because of genetic pollution.”
This kind of biological pollution has also happened in Mexico, where traditional corn plants (there are 150 unique varieties in the southern state of Oaxaca alone) were discovered to have been contaminated by genes from transgenic “industrial corn” planted in nearby fields.
What effect this cross-pollination will have on the integrity of Mexico’s staple crop is not yet known. But multiple studies have confirmed that it has already taken place in regions throughout Mexico. There is also anecdotal evidence of grotesquely deformed native corn plants which contained the genetically modified genes.
A Monsanto brochure boasts, “The good news is that practical experience clearly demonstrates that the coexistence of biotech, conventional and organic systems is not only possible, but it is peacefully occurring around the world.”
The reality on the ground, however, tells a different story. Far from peacefully coexisting with other forms of agriculture, the new biotechnology is rapidly swallowing up traditional farming in the United States. GM cultivation, with its economies of scale, is proving the latest nail in the coffin of family farming.
Moreover, a small number of “high performing” GMOs increasingly dominate; fewer varieties of crops are being planted today than ever before. The Big Ag companies claim that they need patent protection to encourage the costly development of new seed varieties, but Freese told Truthout that Monsanto spends more buying up independent seed companies (to the tune of an estimated $960 million a year) than on its research and development budget.
The result of this monopolistic consolidation, according to critics, has been less innovation, rather than more. Not only are the companies spending less on creating new conventional crops, but publicly funded agricultural research and breeding, which for most of the 20th century was the main driver of agricultural development in the US, declined precipitously in recent years, according to a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute. Perhaps worst of all, the creativity which fueled thousands of years of farmer experimentation becomes impossible when growers are prohibited from replanting seeds.
In the past, farmers selected seeds for traits they wanted to develop in their crops such as taste, size, nutrition and suitability to changing local growing conditions. This ongoing process of selection has led to the fabulous diversity of fruits, grains and vegetables which were developed by untold numbers of farmers over the centuries. Nowadays, however, that selection process is increasingly being frozen by a corporate agricultural system which selects for one trait alone – greater profitability.
Monsanto’s profits from its burgeoning seed business recently reached an all-time high. However, the bottom line for the people who farm the earth – and for all of us who inhabit it – is proving more difficult to calculate.
But Barker of Save Our Seeds told Truthout that the silver lining in the stormclouds of corporate dominance of agriculture is that farmers are so fed up that they are beginning to take matters into their own hands. “Over the last few years, I see more and more people who are not waiting on their governments to do the right thing,” she said. “Instead, they are making change as citizens of the earth in their local communities.”
Barker cites as examples the growing transition toward chemical-free farming, the local food movement and the rise of small-scale regional seed banks to preserve agri-diversity. But she says it’s vital for people to work politically as well.
“Congress constantly hears from agrichemical corporations,” Barker says, “but they don’t often hear from farmers.” However that is gradually changing as outrage against corporations like Monsanto gets transmuted, in America’s agricultural heartland, into the political will to oppose them.