, ,

Will Monsanto dominate the world using Roundup Weed Killer? I’m kidding of course. Sort of. But Monsanto is using its popular weed killer to entice farmers to buy its Roundup ready seeds. These are seeds that aren’t killed by Roundup, so they simplify a farmer’s life by sparing him labor-intensive weed control and plowing. Instead, he plants the seeds and applies Roundup whenever necessary. There’s a glitch, though. Even if he believes that–or doesn’t care whether–Roundup does no environmental damage; even if he believes that genetically modified seeds present no health or environmental risks–and there’s reason to doubt that Roundup and G.M. seeds are safe–the farmer still has a problem. He’s not allowed to do what farmers have done for millennia: harvest the seeds at the end of the growing season and use them next year. He’s required to buy new seeds every year.

That requirement has enriched Monsanto in the last decade or more to the point that it has bought up other seed companies at such a rate that it has become the largest seed company in the world. And it is using every muscle in its corporate body to shove others around, even to the extent of keeping farmers from saving non-G.M. seeds:

  1. They’ve bought up the seed companies across the Midwest.
  2. They’ve written Monsanto seed laws and gotten legislators to put them through, that make cleaning, collecting and storing of seeds so onerous in terms of fees and paperwork that having normal seed becomes almost impossible.
  3. Monsanto is pushing laws that ensure farmers and citizens can’t block the planting of GMO crops even if they can contaminate other crops.
  4. There are Monsanto regulations buried in the FDA rules that make a farmer’s seed cleaning equipment illegal because it’s now considered a “source of seed contamination.”

Those laws are only one of the ways Monsanto is making itself unpopular with farmers. Lawsuits against individual landowners are the other. The corporation sues anyone it suspects of breaching the contract farmers sign not to harvest and use the seeds, even occasionally suing farmers who didn’t buy the seed but whose acreage was simply contaminated by GM crops. To protect its patents, Monsanto uses its huge legal department to intimidate the little guy:

Pilot Grove, Missouri, population 750, sits in rolling farmland 150 miles west of St. Louis. The town has a grocery store, a bank, a bar, a nursing home, a funeral parlor, and a few other small businesses. There are no stoplights, but the town doesn’t need any. The little traffic it has comes from trucks on their way to and from the grain elevator on the edge of town. The elevator is owned by a local co-op, the Pilot Grove Cooperative Elevator, which buys soybeans and corn from farmers in the fall, then ships out the grain over the winter. The co-op has seven full-time employees and four computers.

In the fall of 2006, Monsanto trained its legal guns on Pilot Grove; ever since, its farmers have been drawn into a costly, disruptive legal battle against an opponent with limitless resources. Neither Pilot Grove nor Monsanto will discuss the case, but it is possible to piece together much of the story from documents filed as part of the litigation.

Monsanto began investigating soybean farmers in and around Pilot Grove several years ago. There is no indication as to what sparked the probe, but Monsanto periodically investigates farmers in soybean-growing regions such as this one in central Missouri. The company has a staff devoted to enforcing patents and litigating against farmers. To gather leads, the company maintains an 800 number and encourages farmers to inform on other farmers they think may be engaging in “seed piracy.”

Once Pilot Grove had been targeted, Monsanto sent private investigators into the area. Over a period of months, Monsanto’s investigators surreptitiously followed the co-op’s employees and customers and videotaped them in fields and going about other activities. At least 17 such surveillance videos were made, according to court records. The investigative work was outsourced to a St. Louis agency, McDowell & Associates. It was a McDowell investigator who erroneously fingered Gary Rinehart. In Pilot Grove, at least 11 McDowell investigators have worked the case, and Monsanto makes no bones about the extent of this effort: “Surveillance was conducted throughout the year by various investigators in the field,” according to court records. McDowell, like Monsanto, will not comment on the case.

Not long after investigators showed up in Pilot Grove, Monsanto subpoenaed the co-op’s records concerning seed and herbicide purchases and seed-cleaning operations. The co-op provided more than 800 pages of documents pertaining to dozens of farmers. Monsanto sued two farmers and negotiated settlements with more than 25 others it accused of seed piracy. But Monsanto’s legal assault had only begun. Although the co-op had provided voluminous records, Monsanto then sued it in federal court for patent infringement. Monsanto contended that by cleaning seeds-a service which it had provided for decades-the co-op was inducing farmers to violate Monsanto’s patents. In effect, Monsanto wanted the co-op to police its own customers.

In the majority of cases where Monsanto sues, or threatens to sue, farmers settle before going to trial. The cost and stress of litigating against a global corporation are just too great. But Pilot Grove wouldn’t cave-and ever since, Monsanto has been turning up the heat. The more the co-op has resisted, the more legal firepower Monsanto has aimed at it. Pilot Grove’s lawyer, Steven H. Schwartz, described Monsanto in a court filing as pursuing a “scorched earth tactic,” intent on “trying to drive the co-op into the ground.”

Even after Pilot Grove turned over thousands more pages of sales records going back five years, and covering virtually every one of its farmer customers, Monsanto wanted more-the right to inspect the co-op’s hard drives. When the co-op offered to provide an electronic version of any record, Monsanto demanded hands-on access to Pilot Grove’s in-house computers.

Monsanto next petitioned to make potential damages punitive-tripling the amount that Pilot Grove might have to pay if found guilty. After a judge denied that request, Monsanto expanded the scope of the pre-trial investigation by seeking to quadruple the number of depositions. “Monsanto is doing its best to make this case so expensive to defend that the Co-op will have no choice but to relent,” Pilot Grove’s lawyer said in a court filing.

In July of 2008, Pilot Grove finally caved. The co-op settled by paying $275,000 to a fund to be used for scholarships. How very magnanimous of Monsanto to put the money to community use. But then the corporate giant can afford that minor generosity.

As for world domination, Monsanto is well on the road to controlling the world’s seed supply, as well as aiming to control its milk supply–more on that in a later posting. Who needs weapons when you control the food?