|“Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers.” New report by Center for Food Safety.
Does Monsanto own all future generations of genetically modified seeds that it sells? The Missouri-based agribusiness giant wants farmers to pay a royalty to plant any seed that descended from a patented original. The legal decision has ramifications for other patented “inventions” that reproduce themselves like strands of DNA.
The U.S. Supreme Court appeared to side with Monsanto in oral arguments heard this past February in a lawsuit that the world’s largest seed company has brought against Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75 year old farmer in Indiana, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a small farm of 600 acres (242 hectares).
The impending court decision, which will probably come this June, has sparked alarm among consumer advocates.
“Judges don’t understand agriculture,” says Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, a Washington DC based watchdog group. “The Monsantos of the world have everyone convinced through a massive misinformation campaigns that biotech crops are essential to feed the world, and patents are necessary for biotech crops. So there’s this patina of virtuous innovation when in fact what biotechnology is really used for primarily is to develop pesticide-promoting crops.”
The crop in question is Roundup Ready soybeans, which are genetically-altered to be resistant to glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, a pesticide also manufactured by Monsanto.
Bowman first fought back when Monsanto sued him in 2007 for patent infringement. At the time, Bowman was a regular Monsanto customer. Like the 275,000 other U.S. farmers who buy “Roundup Ready” seeds, Bowman bought his seeds from Monsanto and signed a contract stating that he would not save Roundup seeds to replant. He didn’t.
But from 1999 to 2007, in addition to his usual order of Roundup Ready soybeans for seed, Bowman purchased commodity-grade soybeans, called “commodity grain,” from a local grain elevator where farmers like himself sell their crops. Typically, commodity grain is used for animal feed. Bowman, however, decided to use the commodity grain – a mix comprising of many different varieties of soybeans including some Roundup Ready seeds – to plant a second, lower yield soybean harvest later in the season.
“What I wanted was a cheap source of seed,” Bowman told National Public Radio, a U.S. network.
Roundup Ready was first marketed in 1996, and it was a hit with farmers in the U.S., the largest producer of genetically modified food in the world. These days, more than 90 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans are Roundup Ready, Monsanto said in court documents. As a result, organic farmers say, it’s getting harder to find diverse strains of traditional, heirloom soybeans.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that some of the soybeans Bowman took home from the grain elevator contained Monsanto’s patented soybeans. For eight years, Bowman planted the commodity-grade soybeans for his second harvest, sprayed Roundup on them, harvested the plants that grew and kept the seeds they produced to plant later. It’s these “third generation” seeds that are at the heart of the Supreme Court case now.
Bowman saw nothing wrong with what he was doing. “All through history we have always been allowed to go to an elevator and buy commodity grain and plant it,” he told the New York Times.
Not any more, if companies like Monsanto who control most of the global commercial seed market, have their way. The big seed companies use a strategy to attack seed savers that consists of three stages: “investigations; coerced settlements; and, if that fails, litigation,” says the Center for Food Safety.
To date, in the U.S., Monsanto has sued 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses for alleged seed patent violation. Monsanto has won every single case. The company was awarded nearly $24 million from just 72 of those judgments, the Center for Food Safety found.
Additionally, Freese estimates that as many as 4,500 small farmers who could not afford legal representation have been forced to accept out-of-court settlements. He estimates, based on Monsanto’s documents, that those farmers paid Monsanto between $85 and $160 million in out-of-court settlements.
“As early as 2003, Monsanto had a department of 75 employees with a budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of pursuing farmers for patent infringement,” the Center for Food Safety stated in a new report, “Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers.” “Agrichemical companies earn billions of dollars each year, and farmers cannot possibly compete against such resources.”
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