Monsanto has a patent on just about every crop out there.
A farmer holds Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean seeds at his family farm. (AP Photo/Dan Gill)
On May 25, over two million people in 436 cities, spread out over 52 countries, came out to protest one company. Organizers of the massive march set out to call attention to the dangers of genetically modified food and how a small handful of companies are endangering the world.
In 2011, NaturalNews declared Monsanto the most evil corporation of the year. In 2009, Barbara Pleasant, a writer for Mother Earth News, painted a picture of the company that echoes a growing sentiment:
“In 2006 the corporate giant bought Delta and Pineland, a leading producer of cotton seed, so that it now controls a huge share of the cotton seed market. … Monsanto’s genes are in about 95 percent of commercial soybeans and 80 percent of commercial corn, and people like the attorney generals of Iowa and Texas are concerned that Monsanto’s business practices violate federal antitrust laws that protect free competition. When it comes to licensing agreements, Monsanto is reportedly a big time bully.”
There is a lot not to like about Monsanto. For example, its development alongside Dow Chemicals of Agent Orange — a defoliant used in the Vietnam War that has killed 400,000 and caused 500,000 birth defects, per Vietnamese estimates, and led to 39,419 American soldier disability claims — has led the list of crimes the company has been accused of.
The company also has been accused of aggressive litigation of patent infringement — going so far as to sue farmers that plant seeds they harvest from plants originally of Monsanto stock, and even farmers that end up with Monsanto products because of involuntary crop migration into their fields.
The fact that Monsanto seem to have Congress on its payroll has also led many to allege Monsanto malfeasance. Many call the Farmer Assurance Provision of the 2013 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act the “Monsanto Protection Act” for its generous protections to genetic modifiers from lawsuits.
While the moniker of “evil” may be unfair, these questionable practices and a near-monopoly on the seed market have made many question whether Monsanto is a trustworthy guardian of the world’s food supply.
One of the harder questions that is asked about Monsanto revolves around the U.S Supreme Court case Bowman v. Monsanto Co. Vernon Bowman, a farmer, bought a mix of corn seeds from a grain elevator. Monsanto’s buyer agreement, at the time, forbade the planting of second-generation seeds spawned from its “Roundup Ready” crops, but allowed the grower to sell them to grain elevators for use as “commodity seeds” — which are meant to be used for animal feed or other industrial purposes.
By spraying the corn with the herbicide Roundup, Bowman was able to identify the surviving “Roundup Ready” seeds in the mix he’d purchased and save them for replanting. Although this technically was legal according the buyer agreement, Monsanto cried patent infringement. In a controversial decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the offspring of patented seeds inherit the patent of its parent.
In other words, Monsanto has an inexhaustible patent for the species and any variations that come from its seeds — even if a particular plant did not directly come from a seed manufactured by Monsanto. No farmer can grow the thousands of vegetable and grain varieties Monsanto claims without the company’s permission.
For the small farmer, this effectively means that Monsanto has an open license to tell them what they can or cannot grow. Monsanto controls the vast majority of the seed market in the United States and litigation against the powerful multinational carries the threat of bankruptcy for a family-run farm. For the average consumer, it’s likely that the produce he or she buys at the supermarket — regardless of the grower — came from a Monsanto seed.
And so, for many farmers, Monsanto is the agricultural market.
A culture of fear
Creve Coeur, Mo.-based Monsanto is the world’s leader in genetically engineered seeds. Selling seeds under its 22 brands — which include Seminis, De Ruiter, Asgrow, Dekalb, Jung, Kruger, Stewart and WestBred, the company boasts over 4,000 seed varieties for over 20 species — including fresh and dry beans, broccoli and cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, melons, peppers, onions, squash, sweet corn and tomatoes.
In addition, Monsanto provides genetically engineered seeds for alfalfa, canola, cotton, sorghum, soybeans, sugar beets and wheat — resulting in roughly $800 million per year in seed sales, as of 2012. Although genetic engineering is what makes headlines, 95 percent of Monsanto’s research is in conventional plant breeding.
The United States Department of Agriculture reports that, as of 2013, 90 percent of all planted corn in the United States is genetically modified. 93 percent of all soybeans and 90 percent of all cotton are also modified. While there is no genetically modified wheat currently on the market, 75 percent of Hawaii’s papaya, 90 percent of the canola crop and 54 percent of consumer-grade sugar beet crop in the U.S. are from GM seeds.
While the majority of the modifications include the additions of pesticides or herbicides to the seed cover, other modifications seek to change the genetic identity of the crop toward improving the flavor or appearance, increasing yield or making the crop more suitable to different growing environments.
Definitive proof of the health dangers of genetically-modified foods has yet to emerge, but some research has linked GM foods to cancer, stomach lesions, heightened allergies, organ failure, reproduction complications and blood toxicity. GM crops have also been linked to environmental disorders, including bee colony collapse.
Many have deep fears about Monsanto in light of the company’s track record. In 1984, Monsanto was the defendant in the longest civil jury trial in American history when the company was sued after a train derailed in Sturgeon, Mo., releasing dioxin into the environment. While the jury determined that the plaintiffs were not actually harmed by the dioxin, it found that Monsanto knowingly lied about the dangers of the chemical. Monsanto was hit with $16.2 million in damages, which was overturned on appeal.
Meanwhile, in 2003 Monsanto settled for $300 million with Alabama for dumping polychlorinated biphenyls. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Deferred Prosecution Agreement in which Monsanto admitted to falsifying its books and making bribes to an Indonesian official.
Another issue of deep concern is the company’s exploration of developing a commercially available marijuana seedstock. Since the legalization of medical marijuana in 29 states and recreational marijuana use in two, marijuana cultivation has become big business — in Mendocino County, California alone, marijuana is a $1.5-billion-per-year crop.
Commercial production of marijuana is done by small farmers. Due to the fragmentary nature of the current marijuana regulatory system — wherein each state, county and municipality has its own laws — a single national grower would have trouble adapting to the multitude of micro-regulations that it would face, as well as the attitudes of marijuana users.
“I think it’s partly just a ritual thing, just like with lots of other substances, like coffee,” Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron, who has researched the marijuana industry extensively, told CNBC. “You don’t want to just pop a pill, you like the whole idea of walking across the street … and ordering an espresso and going through the whole ritual.”
Despite this, Monsanto is seeking to position itself into the market. As CNBC reported last week:
“The company is investing millions of dollars into this new technology dubbed ‘RNAi.’ With RNAi, it is possible to manipulate everything from the color of the plant to making the plant indigestible to insects. With medical marijuana, RNAi could be used to create larger, more potent plants effectively cornering the market and exceeding the legal demand for the plant.”
Currently, the federal government recognizes marijuana as a Scheduled I controlled substance and tightly controls research on it. In addition, current estimates have RNAi development at 5 to 10 years’ away from practical implementation.
While Monsanto is not the only genetic modifier, it is the industry leader and — as Wal-Mart is to the big-box retail market — where it goes, the rest of the industry will follow.
Earlier this month, thousands of protesters rallied against the passage of a bill that would allow multinationals to patent GM seeds in Chile. “This law puts seeds into the hands of a few transnational companies,” said Ivan Santandreu, a member of Chile Sin Transgenicos (Chile without GMOs). “This measure does not contribute to the innovation and wellbeing of independent farmers at all. What it does is put food sovereignty at risk by making it dependent on big corporations.”
Ultimately, the world must answer whether it’s safe to leave the production of its food in the hands of a few.