Science in Society Archive

Monsanto versus Farmers

The world's biggest genetically engineered seed owner destroys time-honoured traditions of seed saving and drives American farmers to destitution and bankruptcy. Sam Burcher

Odds stacked against farmers

Feudalism has returned to farming in the US and Canada, according to the US Center for Food Safety’s 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 re-planting seed.

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 Monsanto’s 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 doesn’t 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 can’t 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 engineer’s 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 and development.

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 Farming’s 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

Here’s 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 present.

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 GM.

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 companies.

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 technology’s 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. It’s high time that patent laws on living organisms that are encouraged by legislators, regulators and the courts alike, come under public scrutiny.

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

Article first published 28/04/05


  1. Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, 2005. A report by the Center for Food Safety © 2004, Center for Food Safety
  2. Robert Schubert. Farming’s New Feudalism, World Watch 2005. © Worldwatch Institute.

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