ISIS Report 28/04/05
Monsanto versus Farmers
The worlds biggest genetically engineered seed owner destroys
time-honoured traditions of seed saving and drives American farmers to
destitution and bankruptcy. Sam
Odds stacked against farmers
Feudalism has returned to farming in the US and Canada, according to the
US Center for Food Safetys report detailing the domination over American
staple crops by the corporations and their ruthless prosecution of farmers.
Once the ink is dried on the "technology agreements" signed by the
farmers buying genetically modified (GM) seed, they enter into contracts that
effectively relinquish to Monsanto their right to plant, harvest and sell the
GM seed. From that moment on, they are also vulnerable to harassment such as
having their property investigated, litigations and out of court settlements
that are part and parcel of licensing a Monsanto patented product.
No grower is safe from this onslaught as third generation Canadian
farmer Percy Schmeiser discovered when he lost to Monsanto in court for failing
to pay royalties on GM canola seed that had contaminated his non-GM canola
crop. "The corporations are becoming the barons and lords, which are what my
grandparents thought they had escaped." Schmeiser said.
To-date, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers; and
147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies have had to fight for
their lives to avoid paying additional court costs, attorneys fees, and
in some cases, costs incurred by Monsanto while investigating them
The Center for Food Safety estimates that Monsanto has been awarded
over $15 million for judgments granted in their favour. The largest recorded
single payment received from one farmer was US$3 052 800 (Farmer Anderson, Case
no. 4:01: CV-01 749).
Monsanto controls US staple crops by licence
For the first time in history, one company has unprecedented control of
the sale and use of crop seed. They have accomplished this in three main ways:
control of germplasm through ownership of seed companies; domination of genetic
technology and seeds through patent acquisitions; and breaking age-old farming
tradition by forcing farmers to buy new seed each year rather than saving and
Buying or merging with most of the major seed companies, including their
recent acquisition of the giant fruit and vegetable seed company Seminis, has
made Monsantos the largest GM seed vendor in the world, providing 90% of
the GM seed sown globally. It has also cornered most of the soybean market and
50% of the corn germplasm market in the US. And if Monsanto doesnt
actually own the seed purchasing companies, it has been known to impose the
condition that a minimum of 70% (reduced from 90% by government regulators) of
its patented seeds are sold by subsidiary companies. This ensures that its
seeds are the most readily available to farmers.
American farmers are hard pushed to find high quality, conventional
varieties of corn, soy and cottonseed. Anecdotal evidence supports this. Troy
Roush, an Indiana soybean farmer says, "You cant even purchase them in
this market. They are not available." Similar reports come from the corn and
cotton farmers who say, "There are not too many seeds available that are not
genetically altered in some way."
Over the last 10 000 years, diverse genetic pools have been created and
preserved by plant breeders. Monsanto has put these diverse gene pools at risk
by contaminating certified and traditional seed stocks, and by not permitting
farmers to save seeds. A feudal system of seed ownership destroys perhaps the
key privilege of a farmer as the guardian of societies crop heritage. And
it has turned agriculture into an industry where the corporations consolidate
their hold over costly seeds and chemicals that increase farmers spending on
inputs. Meanwhile monopolies are created in corporate manipulated markets that
include fewer buyers who demand the lowest possible prices for the outputs
produced by farmers, forcing them into a debt spiral. In 2003 Monsanto made
$3.1 billion in pesticide sales and $1.6 billion in seed sales.
Farmers are under pressure to confirm their identity as modern
agriculturalists, particularly in developing countries. But replacing the
traditional strategy of saving and replanting seeds from diverse varieties by a
patented seed with all its restrictions threatens food security at household
and global levels.
Patents place the burden on farmers
Over the past twenty years, Monsanto has voraciously accumulated
collected patents on engineered plants, seeds and genetic engineering
techniques, perhaps most importantly, the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S
promoter, the commonest component in the genetic engineers toolbox. Along
with CaMV35S, which other biotech companies pay exorbitant fees to license,
Monsanto owns 647 plant biotech patents and a 29% share of all biotech research
Patents have changed the face of farming because the farmer has lost
control of seeds. Once farmers paid royalties on seed to the US Plant Variety
Protection Act or Canada Plant Breeders Rights Act licensees who allowed seed
saving. Since the 1980s, the US Patent and Trademark Office began issuing
patents for GM organisms and seeds and have granted more than 2 000 since 1985.
Professor Lawrence Busch of Michigan State University estimates the saving of
soybean seed dropped from 31% in 1991 to just 10% in 2001 after the
introduction of the GM soybean; this translates into an additional $374 million
in seed industry profits in 2001.
Robert Schubert, the author of Farmings New Feudalism
believes than an important strategy in saving independent farmers is to remove
agriculture, food and water from the control of the WTO. His message is no
"free" trade where farming is concerned and no patents.
When Monsanto suspects that saved seed containing a "Monsanto genetic
trait," have been grown, documentation is requested from the farmers to confirm
that the crop was planted from newly purchased seed. If proof is not
forthcoming, then all of the growers fields may be tested and inspected
to determine if saved seed was used. Even after the farmer has extricated
himself from Monsanto technology agreements, if volunteer plants sprout up in
his fields from transgenic seeds purchased and sown from previous years, he is
still vulnerable to allegations of patent infringement.
Farmers intimidated by Monsanto
Heres what typically happens to US farmers who fall under
suspicion of planting saved seed. Private investigators from the Pinkerton
agency hired by Monsanto arrive on the farm without warning, sometimes
accompanied by local police. They then proceed to take samples and photographs
over the course of a few hours to a few weeks, without the farmer being
One Mississippi farmer who runs a farm shop from his farmhouse was
subjected to constant surveillance by Monsanto investigators who watched the
family coming and going, warned off customers, and even rented an empty lot
across the street from where to position their cameras.
Monsanto used entrapment to file a lawsuit against another farmer, when
one of their investigators begged seeds from him to help solve an erosion
problem too late in the season to plant crops. If personal intimidation fails,
Monsanto resorts to another violation of privacy by sending a registered letter
threatening to "tie the farmer up in court for years" if he refuses to settle
out of court for patent infringement. One farmer who challenged this
intimidation had his name blacklisted on thousands of seed dealers lists.
He concedes, "It is easier to give into them than it is to fight them."
A further example is seed dealers who sell seeds in plain brown bags so
farmers sow them unknowingly. This happened to Farmer Thomason who was harassed
into court by Monsanto and sued for over a million dollars. He had no choice
but to file for bankruptcy despite never intending to plant Bt cotton.
In 1999, The Washington Post reported that the number of farmers
under investigation in US and Canada was 525. A later report confirmed that
Monsanto was investigating 500 farmers in 2004 "as they do every year." Once a
farmer agrees to settle out of court he may be forced to present all documents
relating to farm activity within 24 hours of request, purchase a specific
quantity of company product and disclose the names of other people that have
saved company seed.
Contamination of conventional seed stock
Researchers at the University of Manitoba, Canada tested 33 samples of
certified canola (oilseed rape) seed stock and 32 were contaminated with GM.
The Union of Concerned Scientists tested traditional US seed stocks of corn,
soy and canola and found 50% corn, 50% soy and 83% canola contaminated by
One hundred percent purity is no longer achievable, and even if
non-contaminated seed could be purchased, some contamination can take place in
the field either by transfer of seed by wind, animals or via farm equipment.
Monsanto dominates the sale of seed stocks yet puts the onus of finding
markets for crops on the farmer. Within their contract is the "Technology Use
Guide" which gives directions on how to find grain handlers willing to accept
crops not approved for use in the EU. While Monsanto acknowledges that pollen
flow and seed movement are sufficient to contaminate neighbouring non-GM fields
their implicit rule is that "the growers of the non-GM crops must assume
responsibility and receive the benefit for ensuring that their crops meet
specifications for purity."
Monsanto profits from lawsuits against farmers
Outcomes of lawsuits brought by Monsanto against farmers are mostly kept
under wraps. If farmers are tempted to breach confidentiality they can face
fines greater than the settlements. But where judgments have been publicly
recorded, sizeable payments benefit not only Monsanto, but also partner
Combined financial penalties have forced many farmers into bankruptcy
and off their land. Agriculture is suffering losses all around because of the
disappearance of foreign markets. The US Farm Bureau estimates that farmers
lose over $300 million a year because European markets refuse GM corn. The US
State Department says that as much as $4 billion could be lost in agricultural
exports due to EU labelling and traceability requirements. Organic and
conventional farmers alike have lost their premium markets through having no
choice but to sell their contaminated crops into GM crop streams.
Monsanto denies making profits from the misery of farmers and claims
that proceeds go to agricultural school programmes, which some does, but by no
means all. An annual budget of $10 million is set aside each year to run a
department of 75 staff dedicated to prosecuting farmers.
What Monsanto did next
Monsanto has another way of controlling patented genes. So called
"terminator technology" are seeds that become infertile after one life cycle.
The international moratorium on terminator ended when New Zealand and Australia
announced it would support the technologys introduction on a case-by-case
basis at a 2005 meeting in Canada. The US Administration in Iraq has already
enforced the non-replanting of seeds by farmers, under Order 81. Both GURTS
(Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) and "technology agreements," used as
weapons against farmers when they purchase GM seed, have not been legally
challenged. Its high time that patent laws on living organisms that are
encouraged by legislators, regulators and the courts alike, come under public
Amending the Patent Act so that sexually reproducing plants are not
patentable and amending the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) to exclude such
plants from protection under the PVPA are two policy options suggested by the
Center for Food Safety to defend farmers from Monsanto. This would minimise the
damage done to farmers and agriculture in the long term. Drastic policy changes
are needed at state and federal levels to address the hounding of farmers,
their families and small agricultural companies by the aggressive tactics of a
big corporation determined to destroy traditional farming practices and rights
that go back thousands of years.
Farmers facing lawsuits or threats from Monsanto can call this
toll-free hotline for guidance and referrals: 1-888-FARMHLP
Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, 2005. A report by the Center for Food Safety
© 2004, Center for Food Safety
Robert Schubert. Farmings New Feudalism, World Watch 2005.
© Worldwatch Institute.