US: Monsanto "Seed Police" Scrutinise Farmers
BROOKLIN, Canada, Jan 14 - Monsanto
prohibits farmers from saving seed from varieties that have been
genetically engineered (GE) to kill bugs and resist ill-effects from
the herbicide glyphosate (sold under the brand name Roundup).
Kem Ralph of Covington, Tennessee is believed to be the first farmer to
have gone to jail for saving and replanting Monsanto's Roundup Ready
soy seed in 1998. Ralph spent four months behind bars and must also pay
the company 1.8 million dollars in penalties.
In total, U.S. courts have awarded Monsanto more than 15 million
dollars, according to a new report by the Washington-based Centre for
Food Safety (CFS) called "Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers".
"Monsanto's business plan for GE crops depends on suing farmers," said Joe Mendelson, legal director for CFS.
It is the first detailed study of how U.S. farmers have been impacted by litigation arising from the use of GE crops.
In an interview with IPS, a company spokesperson said Monsanto was well
within its rights to enforce patent laws. "Monsanto has never sued a
farmer who unknowingly planted our seeds," said Chris Horner.
When asked how the company differentiates between intentional and
unintentional use Horner said: "You can tell just by looking at field."
"It's not like we're actively going out to find farmers who illegally
use our seed," he added. "But if it comes to our attention we'll look
Horner confirmed that Monsanto provides a toll-free phone number for farmers to report suspected abuses by other growers.
While refusing to comment on the accuracy of the CFS report, Horner
said it only looks at a very small group of its customer base. "We have
more than 300,000 licenses with growers that use our products."
According to the report, court awards are just a fraction of the money
the company has extracted from farmers. Hundreds of farmers are
believed to have been coerced into secret settlements over the past
eight years to avoid going to court.
Farmers generally lack the knowledge and the legal representation to
defend themselves against Monsanto's allegations, Mendelson said at a
press conference Thursday.
"Often, there's no proof offered but farmers give up without a fight," he said.
Very little is known about the terms of these settlements, but in one
instance, a North Carolina farmer agreed to pay 1.5 million dollars, he
Monsanto has a budget of 10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted
solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers, the report said.
The tactic has proved very successful. In 2004, nearly 85 percent of
all soy and canola were GE varieties. Three-quarters of U.S. cotton and
nearly half of corn is also GE.
Monsanto controls roughly 90 percent of GE soy, cotton and canola seed markets and has a large piece of the corn seed market.
The issue of GE crops and small farmers has featured prominently at the
World Social Forum (WSF), an annual gathering of civil society groups
from around the globe that has called for a moratorium on biotech
Monsanto, in particular, has been singled out for "forcing GE crops on
Brazil and the rest of the rest of the world", according to the
environmental group Greenpeace.
This year's WSF takes place Jan. 26-31 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and
will present a new chance for anti-GE campaigners to compare notes on
the successes, and setbacks, of the movement in the last year.
So why don't farmers just buy non-GE seed? North Dakota farmer Rodney
Nelson says there is actually very little conventional seed left to buy
anymore because seed dealers don't make nearly as much money from them.
Monsanto charges technology use fees ranging from 6.25 dollars per bag
for soy to an average of 230 dollars for cotton -- more than three
times the cost of conventional cotton seed. The company argues these
fees are necessary to recoup its research investment.
The other problem is that some non-GE seed is now contaminated by Monsanto's patented genes, Nelson said.
Monsanto sued Nelson and his family in 1999 for patent infringement,
charging they had saved Roundup Ready soybean seeds on their 8,000-acre
farm. Two years of legal hell ensued, Nelson said. The matter ended
with an out of court settlement that he is forbidden to talk about. "We
won, but we feel forever tainted."
The report contains a number of similar individual stories that often end in bankruptcy for the farmer.
Even if a farmer decides to stop using Monsanto seeds, the GE plants
self-seed and some will spring up of their own accord the following
year. These unwanted "volunteers" can keep popping up for five or more
years after a farmer stops using the patented seeds.
Under U.S. patent law, a farmer commits an offense even if they
unknowingly plant Monsanto's seeds without purchasing them from the
company. Other countries have similar laws.
In the well-known case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, pollen from
a neighbour's GE canola fields and seeds that blew off trucks on their
way to a processing plant ended up contaminating his fields with
The trial court ruled that no matter how the GE plants got there,
Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto's legal rights when he harvested
and sold his crop. After a six-year legal battle, Canada's Supreme
Court ruled that while Schmeiser had technically infringed on
Monsanto's patent, he did not have to pay any penalties.
Schmeiser, who spoke at last year's World Social Forum in India, says it cost 400,000 dollars to defend himself.
"Monsanto should held legally responsible for the contamination," he said.
Another North Dakota farmer, Tom Wiley, explains the situation this
way: "Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that
they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell."
"It's a corporation out of control," says Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of CFS.
Unfortunately, he adds, there will be no help for farmers from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration as key
positions are occupied by former Monsanto employees and the company has
a powerful lobby in Washington.
To help farmers facing lawsuits or threats from Monsanto, the CFS has
established a toll-free hotline to get guidance and referrals:
Among other actions, the CFS supports local and state-wide moratoriums
on planting GE crops, and laws to prevent farmers from being liable for
patent infringement through biological pollution.