Monsanto unpopular on its home turf

“One of my biggest concerns is what biotechnology has in store for family farmers”, said Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton, in his well-known speech on 13 July 1999, causing a good deal of irritation to his colleagues in the US Department of Trade. “We’re already seeing a heated argument over who owns what. Companies are suing companies over patent rights even as they merge. Farmers have been pitted against their neighbors in efforts to protect corporate intellectual property rights….. Contracts with farmers need to be fair and not result in a system that reduces farmers to mere serfs on the land.” [1]

The former Secretary of Agriculture was referring to Monsanto’s policy of protecting its GM technology through patents that ensure the company has total control not just over its seeds but also over the farmers who use them. When Monsanto’s researchers invented the “genetic cassette” which allowed the creation of RoundUp-resistant crops, the firm filed a patent in the US that gives it a monopoly on production of the technology until 2014. The company also introduced its “Technology Use Agreement” (TUA), a usage clause that allows it to dictate to farmers. The clause requires the payment of a “technology tax”, collected via specified seed merchants to whom the farmers must sell their crops, and also, importantly, an agreement not to save seed for use the following year. Added to this is a clause compelling “clients” to use only Monsanto’s RoundUp, and not any of the many generic alternatives on the market, after the expiry of its patent in the year 2000.

The “Enserfment” of Farmers by Monsanto

It’s essential to understand how this patenting system for biotech and its unprecedented clauses are fundamental to Monsanto’s control of the agricultural sector. The Technology Use Agreement is one in which Monsanto has all the rights, giving it control over the farmers, and hence Dan Glickman’s reference to “serfs on the land”. To illustrate this power, one only has to look a little closer at the agreement, in which one of the clauses specifies that: “If Monsanto reasonably believes that a grower has planted saved seed containing a Monsanto genetic trait, Monsanto will request invoices or otherwise confirm that fields in question have been planted with newly purchased seed. If this information is not provided within 30 days, Monsanto may inspect and test all of the grower’s fields to determine if saved cottonseed has been planted.” [2] But behind these politically correct phrases a much more aggressive reality is hidden, which has made Monsanto very unpopular among its own clients.

For Professor Peter Carstensen, an economist at the University of Madison (Wisconsin), the practices instigated by Monsanto mark a “double revolution”. “The first”, he explains, “is the fact that they have the right to patent seeds, which was absolutely forbidden until the advent of biotechnology; the second is the extension of the manufacturer’s rights conferred by the patent. […] Monsanto has massive resources available to enforce its rules. I was stunned to learn that the firm had hired the services of the Pinkerton detective agency”. [3] Monsanto pays its agents to trawl the countryside and hunt out fraudsters, and to do this they need to encourage informers. The firm has set up a freephone number that anyone can use to inform on their neighbour. In brief, the firm has spent an awful lot of money to impose its rules on the countryside……”

Witch hunt in the American countryside

Monsanto dedicates an annual budget of $10 million and a staff of 75 to pursue its “enquiries”. Its prime source of information is the freephone number, “1-800-Roundup”, nicknamed the “snitch line”, which the firm officially launched on 29 September 1998 via an everyday corporate press release. “Tell the rep that you want to report some potential seed law violations or other information”, says the recorded message on the freephone number. It is important to use “land lines” rather than cellular phones due to the number of people who scan cellular calls. You may call the information in anonymously but please leave your name and number if possible for any needed follow up.” [4] Questioned about this “snitch line”, suspected of “fraying the social fabric that holds farming communities together”, to quote the measured words of the Washington Post, Karen Marshall, Monsanto’s spokeswoman, felt it adequate to reply that “This is part of the agricultural revolution, and any revolution is painful.” [5]

In November 2004, the Center for Food Safety in Washington published a report titled “Monsanto vs US Farmers”, a very well-researched document which confirmed the existence of what are known in North America as the “gene police”, effectively provided by the Pinkerton agency in the US and the Robinson agency in Canada. [6] It also revealed that since 1998, Monsanto had been carrying out a veritable witch hunt across the American prairies, leading to “Thousands of investigations, nearly 100 lawsuits and numerous bankruptcies”. [7]

“The number of farmers sued represents a minuscule number of the 300,000 or so who use the company’s technology” retorted Christopher Horner. “Lawsuits are the company’s last resort” [8]. As for Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, he condemned the “dictatorial methods” of the multinational which he believed to be “ready for anything” in order to “impose its control on the entire agricultural machine”. It’s important to understand that Monsanto has a total grip on the agricultural world, since by 2005 85% of soya grown in the US was GM, as was 84% of canola, 76% of cotton and 45% of corn. Mendelson added that “no farmer is safe from Monsanto’s brutal investigations and implacable legal actions: some farmers have been accused after their fields were contaminated by pollen or GM seed from a neighbour’s field; or when “volunteer seed” left over from a previous crop had germinated in the following year, in the middle of a non-GM crop; some of them had never signed up to a contract for the technology at all. In all of these cases, because of the way in which the law on the patents is applied, all the farmers were considered to be technically responsible”.

This is truly the nub of the problem, because Monsanto’s protection system doesn’t differentiate between “pirates” who have deliberately infringed the patents, and other farmers whose fields have been contaminated by GM plants spreading randomly in nature. And thus we see demonstrated the difficulty of any coexistence between GM crops and any GM-free operation.

When Monsanto’s agents investigate possible offenders, they use bullying methods which are not at all appreciated by farmers, for example they come onto the farmers’ own land to threaten them or station agents outside the farmers’ homes, sometimes for several days at a time, as described by Percy Schmeiser (see the article above – Canada - The case of Schmeiser v Monsanto). These snooping agents don’t hesitate to impersonate official agricultural bodies in order to take samples of suspect crops, and if they can’t get away with that, they sneak onto the farmers’ private property illegally. People who are victims of genetic pollution therefore find themselves harassed by “Monsanto’s militia” who threaten them with hugely expensive legal action.

Fiercely implacable legal pursuit

Monsanto doesn’t give farmers a chance, and its policy of harassment is reinforced by aggressive and inequitable use of the law, which deters farmers from making any attempt to obtain justice, crucially because of the enormous costs they would incur defending themselves.

Recently the American federal court registrars have produced a list of “Lawsuits filed against American farmers by Monsanto” [9], which included 90 cases by 2005. The average amount of damages obtained by the firm reached $412,259, with a maximum of $3,052,800, making a total of $15,253,602 (in some, exceptional cases, the farmers had not been found guilty). The legal proceedings had resulted in the failure of eight farms. “In reality”, explained Joseph Mendelson, “these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, because they just represent the rare cases which went to court. The great majority of farmers who come under attack, very often without justification, prefer to settle out of court, because they are terrified of the costs involved of fighting a case against Monsanto. And none of these out of court settlements come to light, because they are always sewn up with a gag order. That’s why we’ve only been able to uncover the cases that have come before a judge.”

There is another of Monsanto’s practices that deserves critical attention: the famous Technology Use Agreement includes a clause providing that in the case of litigation, the case will have to be heard by the courts in St Louis. For farmers living right across the United States, this incurs further costs should they want to defend themselves. Above all it gifts Monsanto with what the Chicago Tribune called in 2005 a “hometown advantage” [10] which is far from insignificant. Monsanto has been established in its fiefdom for more than a century and habitually works with the same law firms, including Hush & Eppenberger. [11] We find that the judge Rodney Sipple, known for his intransigence towards “pirates”, began his career with Hush & Eppenberger.

It’s also worthy of note that in 2001, a certain John Ashcroft, then George W. Bush’s Attorney General and Governor of Missouri from 1983 to 1994, sought a US Supreme Court opinion on the patenting of life. On 10 December 2001 the Court’s six to two decision in favour of allowing the patenting of seeds was recorded by the hand of Clarence Thomas 9who had been one of Monsanto’s lawyers) thus confirming Monsanto’s power over every farmer resorting to the use of GMOs.

In conclusion, this phenomenon of the iron law governing the patenting of life is an intrinsic part of the politics of GM cultivation, and should be kept to the fore in the GM debate. Beyond all the uncertainties about the science of GMOs and their health consequences, the enserfment of traditional farming to giant international agricultural companies should be condemned. To defend GM-free farming is also to defend the idea of the countryside and its values, the concept of respect for the land defended against the forced imposition of worship for the dollar.

[1] From the speech given by Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman before the National Press Club: “New Crops, New Century, New Challenges: How Will Scientists, Farmers, And Consumers Learn to Love Biotechnology And What Happens If They Don’t?” Washington, D.C. - July 13, 1999. Quoted in Le Monde Selon Monsanto (The World According to Monsanto), M.M. Robin, coédition La Découverte/Arte, 2008.

[2] Monsanto, 2005 Technology Use Guide, art. 19. (quoted in report by the Center for Food Safety, Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, November 2005, p. 20, )

[3] Famous in the US for its aggressive methods bordering on those of private militias, notably when it was paid for strike-breaking at the end of the 19th century. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was created in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, who became famous when he prevented an assassination attempt against President Abraham Lincoln, who recruited Pinkerton agents to provide protection during the Civil War. Well known by its famous symbol – an eye with the phrase “We never sleep”, the agency was recruited by companies to infiltrate trade unions and factories, using methods that coined the phrase “Bloody Pinkerton”.

[4] Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest, Basic Books, New York, 2002, p. 187

[5] Rich Weiss “Seeds of discord: Monsanto’s gene police raise alarm on farmer’s rights, rural tradition”, The Washington Post, 3 February 1999

[6] Rich Weiss “Seeds of discord: Monsanto’s gene police raise alarm on farmer’s rights, rural tradition”, The Washington Post, 3 February 1999

[7] Center for Food Safety, Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, 2005 (updated November 2007)

[8] The Chicago Tribune, 14 January 2005

[9] Lawsuits filed against American farmers by Monsanto (source: Administrative Office of the US Courts)

[10] Andrew Martin, “Monsanto “ruthless” in suing farmers, food group says”, Chicago Tribune, 14 January 2005. According to this article, out of 90 law suits pursued by Monsanto up to January 2005, 46 took place in St Louis.

[11] St Louis Business Journal, 21 December 2001.