Andreas Späth

Monsanto vs Old MacDonald

2013-05-20 12:30

Andreas Späth

Earlier this month, Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old farmer from Indiana took on Monsanto, the planet's biggest seed company, in the US Supreme Court.

For the most part, Bowman has been following the playbook of industrial agriculture exactly the way he’s supposed to. Every year he'd buy Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) soybean seeds along with the glyphosate herbicide they’ve been engineered to be resistant to. He'd sign the "technology agreements" preventing him, among other things, from saving some of his crop and using it to plant more soybeans.

Starting in 1999 Bowman thought he'd save some money on his more risky late-season second crop of soybeans. Instead of purchasing Monsanto's expensive "cropping system", he went old-style and bought soy seeds from a grain elevator – a company that buys produce from many local farmers and re-sells it as animal feed and for food processing etc.

Bowman planted these seeds as his additional crop, saved some of the resulting beans and then used those for subsequent late-season plantings, while continuing to buy the seeds for his main annual crop from Monsanto.

Bad mistake! The multinational biotech giant spends a lot of money and resources on sniffing out exactly this sort of behaviour.

In 2007, Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement and was awarded $84 456 in damages by an Indiana district court, a decision subsequently upheld in the Court of Appeals.

At stake is the question of whether patents on self-replicating things like seeds extend beyond the first generation of products - essentially whether companies like Monsanto retain control over the seeds produced from their original GM seeds for generation after generation in perpetuity. Even though Bowman bought his late-season seeds from a third party and not Monsanto directly, the majority of the soybeans sold by the grain elevator were the products of Monsanto seeds.

The company argues that allowing farmers to save their seeds would “devastate innovation in biotechnology” since they’ve spent a lot of money on developing the technology. A bogus argument, if you ask me, as much of the research and development in question originates in publicly-funded universities, and since their so-called innovations have yet to live up to their lofty promises.

GM crops were supposed to increase yields and reduce the need for harmful agro-chemicals. What we got is the opposite.

In the USA, the largest producer of such crops, research shows that they have driven up the use of herbicides by 11% or 527 million pounds between 1996 and 2011, and resulted in the wide-spread development of herbicide- resistant superweeds. Independent reports and field tests suggest only small yield increases from some GM maize varieties, with others producing the same or even lower yields than non-GM counterparts.

In the end it’s all about winning hearts, minds and influence, though. Together with other biotech firms, Monsanto spent more than $46 million to defeat a GMO food labelling initiative in California last year, and an analysis of 926 diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks documents how the US State Department used the country’s diplomats to aggressively promote the interests of biotech firms, quash public scepticism about the technology and lobby other governments to adopt pro-GM policies and laws, all “to the near exclusion of other, more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives”.

When Farmer Bowman decided to take his case to the Supreme Court, he must have known that this wasn’t exactly going to be a battle between equals. There are a number of reasons why matters were seriously stacked in Monsanto’s favour:

- A recent report shows that Monsanto has been awarded a total of over $23 million in damages from 142 patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses.

- Monsanto spent nearly $6m on lobbying the US government in 2012, contributed over $500 000 to federal candidates in the last election cycle and sold stocks to eight members of Congress (both Republican and Democrat).

- Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas used to be a Monsanto lawyer in the 1970s, but he didn't recuse himself from the case. Current Monsanto lawyer Seth P Waxman, on the other hand, used to be a US solicitor general, representing the government before the Supreme Court.

- President Obama recently signed into law what some are calling the “Monsanto Protection Act”, which declares that no US court can stop the planting, harvesting, sale or distribution of any GM seed, even if it’s been linked to environmental or health problems. It’s widely believed to be the work of Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a major recipient of Monsanto campaign funding. While the act expires in September, it sets a very dangerous legal precedent.

It’s an amazing business model, really. You monopolise the world seed market (more than 53% is now controlled by three companies: Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta); you promise to end world hunger; you legitimise your dodgy GM seeds by patenting them - in effect patenting life and contractually turning millions of farmers into modern-day serfs; you invest prudently in the best governments money can buy and soon enough you’ve got legislators penning laws in your favour and so-called public servants strong-arming entire countries to buy your products.

Then you watch the money roll in. In April, Monsanto announced net annual profits of $1.48 billion, up by 22%.

That’s beautiful. If you’re a sociopath.

So what about Farmer Bowman’s Supreme Court case? I hope you weren’t expecting this to be one of those David vs Goliath endings.

Last Monday, the court ruled in favour of Monsanto by unanimous vote, confirming that Bowman still owes Monsanto $84 456.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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