Picture the scene: A stranger walks into a small-town country store and accuses the owner of planting seeds in violation of his company's patent. When the store owner protests that he has done no such thing, the shady visitor leaves, all the while yelling that his company is big and will make the store owner pay. The company continues on with its harassment, utilizing private investigators who film farmers sowing their seeds, infiltrating community meetings and working informants. Some of the company's employees pretend to be surveyors. Others are more brazen and attempt to bully farmers into signing papers that will give them access to their private records. Sounds like the basis for a great screenplay, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it's really happening all across rural America. And the company we're talking about is none other than Monsanto. Filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin has exposed Monsanto's evil empire in a new documentary that will probably never be aired on American television.
For years, farmers have been planting seeds in the spring for harvest in the fall. After the harvest, it is common practice for farmers to reclaim the seeds and clean them for replanting in the spring. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office traditionally refused to award patents to seeds because they were considered a life form with far too many variables to patent. That all changed in 1980 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, extended the patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” Although the ruling applied to a bacterium developed by a General Electric scientist to clean up oil spills, the precedent was set and the door was opened. Monsanto walked through that door and never looked back.
Monsanto developed and patented a genetically-engineered seed that resisted it's own weed killer, Roundup, giving farmers a convenient way to control weeds without harming their crops. However, what Monsanto gave itself is the gift that keeps on giving. Because the seeds are patented, farmers who buy these genetically-modified seeds must sign an agreement not to reuse the seed or sell it to other farmers, changing the face of farming forever. That means that farmers must now buy new seed every year. The increase in seed sales, combined with the increased sales of Roundup, has been a boon for Monsanto. Most of the farmers comply with the terms of the Monsanto contract. However, some farmers truly do not realize what they've gotten into and do not understand that they cannot reuse the seeds. Others will ignore the terms of the contract, preferring not to throw away perfectly good seeds. Even farmers who do not use Monsanto genetically-altered seeds and do not want to use them can fall victim to Monsanto's strong-arm tactics when water, wind or birds deposit the unwanted seeds in their fields. There is no way to visually tell one seed or plant from another; laboratory analysis is required. Monsanto will gladly send out its army of shady operatives to pull samples from farm fields for testing in order to protect its profits. If it is confirmed by laboratory analysis that the crop in your field came from Monsanto seeds, it won' t matter that you did not put them there. It won't matter if you do not want them there. All that matters is that they are there, and Monsanto will do what it must do to protect its patent.
The ruthless pursuit of the world's food supply
During the 1990s, Monsanto declared itself a 'life sciences' company, spinning off its chemical and fibers operations. After yet another reorganization in 2002, it presented itself as an 'agricultural' company. While its PR machine positions Monsanto as a leader in the fight against world hunger, the simple fact is that it's all about profits. It's not like Monsanto is donating genetically modified seeds to combat world hunger. In fact, just the opposite is true. Monsanto knows that if it it owns the seed market, it essentially controls the food supply. To that end, it has spent the last decade buying up over 50 GM and traditional seed companies around the globe. It squeezes its farmers for everything it can get, and it protects its patents with a ruthless pattern of litigation.
Since the mid-90s, Monsanto has sued 150 U.S. farmers for patent infringement. The most prevalent 'crime' involves the violation of a technology agreement that prevents farmers from saving seed from one season to plant the next season. Overseas, Monsanto's behavior has not been much better.
In 2005 a criminal investigation concluded that a Monsanto consultant visited the home of an Indonesian official and handed him an envelope containing a wad of hundred dollar bills. This bribe was in exchange for the official bypassing environmental impact studies on Monsanto's genetically-modified and highly toxic cotton plant. Under any other administration this criminal act would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, Monsanto was allowed to cut a 'deferred prosecution agreement' with the Justice Department to avoid a criminal trial. Instead, Monsanto paid a million dollar fine and agreed to government oversight of its operations. Given the present administration, this amounts to no oversight at all, of course.
In India, an indigenous seed company, Navbharat Seeds Pvt. Ltd. of Gujarat brought a bollworm-resistant seed, Navbharat-151, to market in 1999. Navbharat-151 is preferred by Indian farmers because it is a conventional seed and was not produced by genetic engineering. In 2001, Monsanto claimed to have found its Bt. cotton gene in some of the fields of Navbharat-151 cotton and accused the Indian farmers of Gujarat of producing pirated seed via cross-fertilization of their Bollgard plant with Navbharat-151. However, the Monsanto seeds did not become commercially available in India until 2002. The only way this cross-fertilization could have occurred was through genetic pollution, or unless Monsanto was providing its seed illegally to Navbharat Seeds prior to 1999. This is just another example of the way Monsanto uses propaganda and public relations to attempt to extract royalties from unwitting farmers. It should be noted that Monsanto's field trials began illegally in India in 1998, and the company was taken to court by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) for violating the Indian Environmental Protection Act. Legal action notwithstanding, many Indian cotton farmers have fallen hopelessly into debt because of Monsanto's illegal and ruthless practices. Many have committed suicide.
On March 7, 2008, International Women's Day, dozens of Brazilian women occupied the research site at the Monsanto facility in Sao Paulo, destroying the greenhouse and Monsanto's experimental plots of genetically-modified corn. The protesters were members of the international farmers' organization, La Via Campesina, who took exception to the Brazilian government's decision to legalize Monsanto's genetically-modified Guardian® corn, just weeks after France banned it due to environmental concerns and potential human health risks. The farmers object to seed patenting because it keeps poor farmers in debt to the corporations owning the seed patents and takes away the farmers' freedom to keep and share seeds. Brazilian farmers also believe that Monsanto's GM crop threatens biodiversity and Brazil's native seed varieties, and violates the rights of small farmers and consumers by contaminating organic and conventional crops.
This is Monsanto's master plan. Introduce its genetically-modified seed and sit back while it contaminates fields grown with traditional seeds. Once that has happened, Monsanto claims their seeds have been pirated. It is not only happening in India and Brazil. It is happening in Mexico, where the origin for maize has been deeply contaminated by Monsanto's GM seeds, Africa and Paraguay. Monsanto's reach has even extended to Iraq, a country we have already devastated through war. One of L. Paul Bremer's final acts was to establish an order preventing farmers from reusing 'protected' (or patented) seeds. The world is easy to contaminate, but hard to police, so the next logical step for Monsanto, of course, was development of the so-called 'terminator' or 'suicide' seed.
In 2006, Monsanto purchased a company called Delta & Pine Land. Conveniently, this is the company that has been working with our own U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on genetically engineered seeds since 1983, and one of the main projects has been the 'terminator' or 'suicide' seed. These seeds have been genetically modified to 'commit suicide' after one harvest season, preventing farmers from saving or reusing the seed. This would mean that Monsanto can save money because it will no longer need to employ its cadre of thugs to strong-arm farmers into submission.
How did Monsanto get where it is?
How did a company that manufactured Agent Orange (used as a defoliant during the Vietnam war), PCBs and dioxin, and left in its wake 50 known Superfund sites, come to control 90% of the world's GM seed market? The short answer is that it has always had more than enough help from the U.S. Government. In 2006, Monsanto donated $106,500 to federal candidates with 32% going to the Democrats and 68% to Republicans. While this number may seem insignificant, it's the approximately $4 million it spent on lobbying that helps them curry favor with the government.
Monsanto, more than any other U.S. Company, is a master at using the government's unethical 'revolving door' policy. In 1991, Michael Taylor, was appointed deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). He had previously been an attorney at Monsanto. While in his government position, Taylor made key decisions that allowed the government to approve GE crops without proper testing and consumer labeling, in spite of the fact that there were (and still are) serious concerns about their safety. Taylor then returned to Monsanto to work in 'long range planning.' He is just one of the many Monsanto employees who have conveniently found their way into government positions, and then returned to the private sector after accomplishing their tasks.
Because Monsanto successfully prevented labeling of food packages, consumers do not know that 60-70% of the food on store shelves, including cereals, snack foods, and even baby foods, contain some type of genetically-modified ingredients. These ingredients also frequently turn up in animal feed. How safe are they? Because they were never appropriately tested, nobody really knows. Some of the potential problems include introduction of allergens and toxins into foods, antibiotic resistance, accidentally changing the nutrient content of crops and the creation of 'superweeds' and other environmental risks. Of these potential risks, allergens and toxins are the most dangerous.
While responsibility for regulation falls to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA. However, industry experts say that the green light is given mostly by the companies developing the technology. It is no surprise, then, that Monsanto owns 90% of the domestic genetically-modified seed market. (The rest is split among other companies, including Dow Chemical and Syngenta AG.) The FDA has a unique policy for determining the safety of GM foods: Genetically-modified foods simply need to be 'substantially equivalent' to non-modified foods. This is hardly a scientific approach.