Saturday, April 26, 2008

Monsanto vs. farmers

Monsanto has recently settled with Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, whom they'd sued for patent infringement when it was discovered that their Roundup Ready canola seed had crosspollinated with his own plants. They've agreed to pay clean-up costs of removing any Roundup Ready canola in Schmeiser's fields. Schmeiser believes "this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready plants."

Monsanto has spent years suing small farmers across North America for 'patent infringement' in cases in which Monsant's genetically-modified and patented 'Roundup Ready' canola seeds had been found to have cross-pollinated with local farmers' crops without those farmers' knowledge or permission. Monsanto's argument has been that whether or not the farmer knew of or wanted such cross-pollination, the resulting plants and their seeds belonged to Monsanto, thanks to its patent on the Roundup Ready seed. (For excellent and compelling background on this story, watch The Future of Food, the award-winning 2004 documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia (widow of Jerry Garcia) which is available from the Cincinnati Public Library.) Thousands of small farmers across North America have been sued by Monsanto for patent infringement because they'd inadvertently (and involuntarily) ended up with Monsanto seed in their fields.

Monsanto's solution? Buy all your seeds from Monsanto. Then you're safe. Oh, and pay Monsanto $15 an acre in royalties on the patented seed.

At the time of filming, Schmeiser, who had saved his canola seed for replanting for decades, carefully selecting over a progression of years that seed which was best adapted to his Saskatchewan growing conditions, was being forced to destroy the product of his life's work because it had become contaminated by the Monsanto gene and Monsanto was claiming ownership of the seed. And the courts have backed Monsanto up on the ownership question -- the genes are patented, and if a farmer knowingly replants seed that has been crosspollinated with Roundup Ready seed, even against his will, he is guilty of patent infringement.

Monsanto grows its research GMO seed in thousands of confidential locations. For all any farmer knows, the about-to-be-patented pollen from plants in the next field could be blowing into his fields right now and crosspollinating with his crop. It is the nature of genetics that once a gene enters the gene pool, it's nearly impossible to get it back out again unless it's both dominant and fatal before reproductive maturity. It is quite possible that hundreds of years from now every canola, corn, soy, and cotton seed in North America will have a Monsanto GMO seed as an ancestor. (Monsanto has discontinued its Roundup Ready wheat project.)

Monsanto, by patenting seeds and then using their wealth to aggressively protect those patents, is attempting to completely control the world's commodity crop production. Many will remember their plans to develop the truly evil "Terminator Technology," which produced seeds with the Terminator gene which rendered second-generation seeds sterile -- thereby ensuring the farmer couldn't save seed from one year to the next. The repercussions of such a gene escaping into the broader gene pool were horrifying, with visions of third-world farmers innocently planting their saved seed and waiting...and waiting. Monsanto did acquire Delta & Pine Land, the developer of Terminator, but after a public outcry at the technology's potential for causing disastrous crop failures and resulting starvation, they announced they will not use the technology. (The USDA is a co-patent holder on the technology, retains the right to develop it, and so far has refused to commit to not developing it in the future. Our government at work for you.)

Monsanto continues to aggressively market their Roundup Ready cotton, soybean, canola, and corn seed, including with disastrous results to developing-world farmers who can't provide the necessary irrigation to be successful with such crops. And even diversified farms aren't safe. Monsanto already owns Seminis, the largest producer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world, and a few weeks ago Monsanto finalized plans to acquire De Ruiter Seeds, a producer of seeds for the greenhouse vegetable market.

Percy Schmeiser, in the meantime, is happy with his win but estimates his legal bills top $400,000 Canadian. And even if he could get his destroyed seeds back, they'd still contain the Roundup Ready gene and be the property of Monsanto.


Veggie Option said...

Thank you for posting this. I already hated Monsanto, but now I have even MORE reason.

Anonymous said...

Great post, thank, the tide is turning thanks to folks like you! A local reminder, Deborah Koons Garcia is from the tristate, she grew up in Indian Hill.

Kale for Sale said...

Thank you for this and the article in Vanity Fair. I'm just learning about the seed industry and am at the head shaking in disbelief and sick stomach phase. I'll see Percy Schmeiser with Claire Hope Cummings, the author of Seeds of Peril, speaking this weekend. And I recently saw Vendana Shiva who is doing a lot of work with seed saving. All good information but now what to do.

Anonymous said...

In the purest sense, Monsanto fighting over its seeds isn't any different than the record companies fighting over people burning CDs. I don't think misguided attempts to protect their work-product make them evil. That said, if everyone agrees Monsanto is bad to do business with, why don't they all just stop buying seeds from them? I mean they only have vast financial resources because farmer's buy their seeds, right? Before anyone suggests that they have no choice, I guess as a novice I have to wonder what farmer's did the last 10,000 years without Monsanto?

valereee said...

Anonymous, Monsanto owns most of the seed companies at this point, and the hybrids they've developed have intentionally weak offspring -- which means farmers can't save seed from one year's crop to plant for next year, which is what farmers did for ten thousand years.

Anonymous said...

Why don't the courts view Monsanto's alleged acts or omissions as trespass, since their genetically altered seeds end up on the farmers' lands, without their consent? How did the "table turn" against the farmers? This is like something out of a "sci fi" movie. Too bad it's not fiction.

Soon large corporations will find ways to charge consumers for clean air and sunlight, just like we're charged for clean water. Now, farmers are being charged for licenses for seeds that they don't want. Go figure.