We are witnessing the most outrageous acts of corporate theft and domination in history. At its heart is the manipulation of life-forms and the use of this technology to gain control over the food chain. Nick Papadimitriou charts the recent antics of Monsanto.
Giant agbiotech companies such as Monsanto are aggressively imposing a new form of serfdom on North American farming practices. By patenting both naturally occurring gene sequences and genetically modified forms of life, Monsanto can use aggressive lawsuits to ward off any potential rival. At the same time, insidious forms of surveillance and barely concealed threats are whittling away any options farmers have for getting seeds from other suppliers.
In April, Monsanto secured a "torpedo" patent designed to sink all rivals on antibiotic resistant marker genes used in practically all GMO crops . This immediately resulted in court battles and a requirement for everyone who has made use of the technology to pay Monsanto royalty fees.
Monsanto has now launched another torpedo. A patent is pending on the complete genome of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The bacterium is used in a vector system to insert new genetic material into crop plants and is a staple of the agricultural biotechnology sector. The patent has been pending for 18 years, as challenges were made by rival companies claiming to have invented the same. But the original technology was actually developed by non-industry academics on government funds .
Monsanto stipulated in its "New Monsanto Pledge", announced last November, that it was committed to sharing knowledge and technology in order to benefit people and the environment . Working with a research team from the University of Richmond, the company purports to have placed the genome of Agrobacterium tumerfaciens onto a 'public' database. However a perusal of the terms and conditions reveals that access is strictly limited to non-profit groups willing to enter into a licensing contract with Monsanto.
A similar arrangement holds with the Monsanto genome database for rice. The database registration agreement, available for download at Monsanto's devoted site, places severe restrictions on would-be researchers. Any patent resulting from information in the database has to be filed with Monsanto, and this applies anywhere in the world. Monsanto reserves the right to claim royalties for such work. Even more disturbingly, information on the database that is duplicated in any public source, and gained from that source, is also subject to those conditions. Unrestricted publication of research gained from using Monsanto's database is limited to 250 kilobases .
That is only half the story so far. Monsanto has become renowned for throwing its weight about in the farming community. Several hundred lawsuits are pending following the successful prosecution of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for alleged illegal possession of Monsanto's Round Up Ready canola. Schmeiser has now launched an appeal citing seventeen instances of the judge having erred or judged contrary to law. Amongst these are the determination that a farmer who inadvertently grows Roundup Canola has no right to grow or sell any such seeds or plants regardless of how they came to be there. Another crucial ground for appeal is that Justice McKay placed the onus on Schmeiser to prove how the seeds came to be in his field whether by contamination or otherwise . Monsanto subsequently set up a "snitch" line, advertised on radio stations in western Canada, to encourage reports on other alleged 'malpractices'. Following protests, this has been dropped .
Now Monsanto is suing another Saskatchewan farmer for allegedly growing Round Up canola without a license. Kelly Ryczek is accused of obtaining Round Up seeds from a source other than Monsanto. Ryczek allegedly planted some of these seeds and sold others on. Monsanto is insisting Ryczek surrenders the seeds, and is demanding a penalty for breach of their patent rights .
The Schmeiser case, because it took place in Canada, has prompted concerns that it will serve as a legal precedent in other commonwealth nations. Professor Brad Sherman of the Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture, Australia National University, has pointed out that Schmeiser was prosecuted for infringement of exclusive rights awarded to Monsanto. Monsanto won the case based solely on the fact its GM canola was found growing on Schmeiser's land, regardless of the fact Schmeiser was a victim of contamination.
Sherman thinks farmers are being pressured into buying Monsanto seeds, because, if not, they run the risk of being prosecuted like Schmeiser. Sherman concludes that the patent holder "has no incentive to take responsibility for controlling its technology". On the contrary the farmers are being made responsible for controlling the patented genes .
It gets worse. The selling point behind Roundup Ready is that it is a glyphosphate-resistant strain. Spray on the herbicide and you're left with nothing but Monsanto crops. However, after two years application, glyphosphate-resistant volunteer corn plants begin to flourish. This has led to the most bizarre Monsanto patent yet awarded. US patent # 6,239,072 covers the practice of mixing glyphosphate with other herbicides, and any premixture thereof. This patent has been awarded despite the fact that mixing herbicides is what any sensible, thinking farmer would naturally do, and has been doing, in the event of resistant plants emerging. The patent also serves as a "de facto" admission of the GM "superweed" problem and that Roundup technology lacks efficacy and predictability.
It doesn't end there. The scope of Monsanto's 'invention' extends to using the mixtures on any straggler volunteer crops that may develop glyphosphate resistance by accident or design, at any time in the future. Using such broad patents, Monsanto assures that nothing escapes its clutches. By forcing farmers to use faulty technology and then patenting further methods to rectify those faults Monsanto is placing the farming community in a quicksand of ongoing legal obligations .
Fortunately, Monsanto doesn't always get its way. Monsanto was subject to a US department of Justice Antitrust Division enquiry back in 1998 regarding their acquisition of DeKalb Genetics Corporation. Similarly, when Monsanto attempted to acquire Delta & Pine Land Co in 1999 to gain control of that company's terminator seed technology, the Antitrust Division indicated that it was prepared to sue to prevent the transaction. In a recent speech made before the Organization for Competitive Markets in Nashville, Douglas Ross, Special Counsel for Agriculture at the Antitrust division outlined the basis on which prosecution for antitrust regulations can be brought. Amongst others, he cited conspiracies to deny market access or otherwise suppress competition, the use of predatory and/or exclusionary conduct to hold on to a monopoly in the market and mergers that are likely to lessen competition in the market. Monsanto is guilty on all three counts .
Article first published October 2001