SEEDS OF DISCORD - MONSANTO'S GENE POLICE RAISE ALARM ON FARMERS' RIGHTS, RURAL TRADITION
February 3, 1999
The Washington Post /Rick Weiss
BRUNO, Saskatchewan -- Another story about Percy Schmeiser, 68, who has been farming these fertile acres all his life, growing canola for the valuable oil in its seeds, as he shows a reporter where private investigators last year arrived uninvited and snipped samples of his crops for DNA tests.
The story says that Schmeiser, as farmers have done for thousands of years, has saved some seeds from each year's harvest to replant his fields the following season. Now, he says, "for doing what I've always done," he is being sued by agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. in a landmark "seed piracy" case. The story says the outcome could influence how much control biotechnology companies will have over the world's food supply in the next millennium, and is highlighting a major source of friction as the genetic revolution spills into the world of agriculture.
Schmeiser is, the story says, one of hundreds of farmers in the United States and Canada who stand accused by Monsanto of replanting the company's patented, gene-altered seeds in violation of a three-year-old company rule requiring that farmers buy the seeds fresh every year.Schmeiser was cited as vehemently denying having bought Monsanto's seeds, saying pollen or seeds must have blown onto his farm, possibly from a neighbor's land, adding that it's the company that ought to be rebuked for its pattern of "harassment."
Besides sending Pinkerton detectives into farmers' fields, the company sponsors a toll-free "tip line" to help farmers blow the whistle on their neighbors and has placed radio ads broadcasting the names of noncompliant growers caught planting the company's genes. Critics say those tactics are fraying the social fabric that holds farming communities together.
Hope Shand, research director of Rural Advancement Foundation International, an international farm advocacy group based in Pittsboro, N.C., was quoted as saying, "This is a very alien and threatening concept to farmers in most of the world. Our rural communities are being turned into corporate police states and farmers are being turned into criminals."
Monsanto representatives were cited as saying the company must strictly enforce the "no replant" policy to recoup the millions of dollars spent developing the seeds and to continue providing even better seeds for farmers. Already, they say, the new varieties are improving farmers' yields and profits and allowing them to abandon extremely toxic chemicals in favor of more environmentally friendly ones. A newer generation of engineered seeds, now under development, promises to produce food with enhanced nutritional value, providing a potential boon for the world's malnourished masses.
Karen Marshall, a spokeswoman for Monsanto in St. Louis was quoted as saying, "This is part of the agricultural revolution, and any revolution is painful. But the technology is good technology."
The story goes on to say that a visit to Monsanto's 210-acre biotechnology complex, 25 miles west of St. Louis, offers ample evidence of how difficult and expensive it is to develop new and useful varieties of gene-altered seeds.
It is the largest biotechnology research center in the world, featuring 250 separate laboratories, 100 room-sized plant growth chambers whose climates can be controlled from researchers' home computers if necessary, and two acres of greenhouses arrayed on the main building's enormous rooftop. It was here that company scientists took a gene from a bacterium that produces an insect-killing toxin called "Bt" and transferred it to corn, cotton and other crops to make plants that exude their own insecticide.
Here too, researchers gave crops a gene that allows them to survive Monsanto's flagship weed killer, Roundup, which normally kills them. Monsanto estimates that it takes 10 years and about $300 million to create commercial products such as these. For every new kind of engineered seed that makes it to field trials, 10,000 have failed somewhere along the development pipeline, officials say. To recover this huge investment, the company has opted not to sell its engineered seeds in the traditional sense but to "lease" them, in effect, for one-time use only and to go after anyone who breaks the rules.
Marshall was quoted as saying that suing one's own customers "is a little touchy," but after going to so much trouble to build a better seed, "we don't want to give the technology away."
The story says that until about a decade ago, crop and seed development in the United States and abroad was mostly a government business. The Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the nation's land grant colleges and local agricultural extension agents, developed, tested and distributed new varieties of seeds, asking nothing more of citizens than that they pay their taxes. Under that system, patents were infrequently pursued and rarely enforced. And seed saving and trading were commonplace.
That began to change in the 1980s when Congress passed legislation, including the Bayh-Dole Amendment, that encouraged federal agencies to cooperate more closely with the private sector. In agriculture, that meant private seed companies could profit handsomely by selling seeds thatwere developed in large part with taxpayer dollars. Today, a handful of American and European agricultural companies control a major portion of the world's certified food seed supply.
Monsanto is the king of them all. Its gene alterations can be found in hundreds of crop varieties sold under license by many seed companies. And the total acreage devoted to gene-altered crops has increased astronomically since the first varieties were approved in 1996. This year, about half of the 72-million-acre U.S. soybean harvest is expected to be genetically engineered to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup. More than half of the 13 million acres of U.S. cotton will be engineered as well, as will be about 25 percent of the nation's 80 million acres of corn, either for Roundup resistance or to exude Bt.
William Kosinski, a Monsanto biotechnology educator was quooted as saying, "Farmers are going bonkers for these crops. They've been very well received."
Although there are lingering concerns that in the long run genetically engineered crops could end up hurting the environment, the company argues that they could actually help. In one small study, the reduced use of pesticides with engineered plants appears to have resulted in increased survival of beneficial insects, which eat insect pests and serve as food for struggling songbird populations.
Hugh Grant, co-president of Monsanto's agricultural division was quoted as saying, "Cotton growers are saying that the thing they're noticing is they're starting to hear birds again."
The story describes Tim Seifert and Ted Megginson, farm neighbors in Auburn, Ill., about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis. Between the two of them they farm about 4,400 acres, mostly soybeans and corn, and they will vouch for the quality of Monsanto's genes. For the past two years, all 1,200 acres of Seifert's soybean fields have been planted with Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready brand, and about half his other 1,200 acres are now devoted to the company's Bt-exuding "YieldGard" corn. Megginson started using Roundup Ready soybean seed last year, and both say they have obtained good yields while using fewer toxic chemicals.
Seifert was quoted as saying, "It's made me a better farmer," adding that he estimates he saved $5 to $6 an acre last year in reduced labor and pesticide costs. However, Seifert and Megginson confess to being less than enthused about the "Technology Use Agreement," which not only demands that farmers not save seed but also gives Monsanto the right to come onto their land and take plant samples for three years after the seeds are last purchased, with Seifert quoted as saying, "Farmers don't like to sign anything. I have to admit, I balked a little."
But what has really irritated farmers has been Monsanto's aggressive efforts to track down seed savers, such as the company's widely advertised toll-free "tip line." "Nobody likes to think that your neighbor is getting away with something while you are doing it on the uppity up, but we're all neighbors, too," Seifert said. In heated discussions at local farm meetings, he said, "the majority of farmers felt like they wouldn't squeal on each other."
Megginson and Seifert were also taken aback by the radio ads that Monsanto aired during the fall soybean harvest in which the company named farmers who had been caught saving seed and ads the company calls "educational" and others call "intimidating."
David Chaney, who farms about 500 acres near Reed, Ky. Chaney was cited as admitting to replanting some of Monsanto's engineered soybean seed and trading some to other farmers in the area. He settled with Monsanto, paying the company $35,000 and signing an agreement that forbids him from criticizing the company. Chaney was quoted as saying, "I wish I could tell you the whole story. Legally they are right. But morally, that's something else altogether. Mostly I wish I'd bought their stock instead of their seed." Perhaps most bothersome, he added, is knowing that someone he knows probably turned him in.
However, the story notes, it's possible that no one turned Chaney in, because another of Monsanto's methods for catching seed pirates is to conduct random DNA tests on plants growing in the fields of farmers who have bought its seed in previous years. The company has hired full-time Pinkerton investigators and, north of the border, retired Canadian Mounted Police, to deal with the growing work load, a total now of more than 525 cases, about half of which have been settled. The story says that the company won't reveal details, but many of the settlements have been in the range of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and a settlement in the millions is expected soon.
The story then goes back to Schmeiser, who says he never bought engineered seeds from Monsanto, and never signed a grower agreement, adding that it was a Friday in July when he got a call from a local Monsanto representative who said, "We have heard a rumor that you are growing Roundup Ready Canola on your farm. I thought, 'Oh boy!' "
The story says that the man from Monsanto asked Schmeiser for permission to test his plants. Schmeiser refused, so the company sampled some plants on a public right-of-way near his fields. Some of those apparently tested positive for Monsanto's gene, because a judge subsequently provided a court order allowing the company to take plants from Schmeiser's property.
The problem, Schmeiser says, is there's a lot of plants in the area with Monsanto's gene in them. Roundup Ready pollen from other farmers' fields is blowing everywhere in the wind, he says, and he's seen big brown clouds of canola seed blowing off loaded trucks as they speed down the road around harvest timeQspilling more than enough to incriminate an innocent farmer.
Terry J. Zekreski, Schmeiser's attorney in Saskatoon, was cited as saying Monsanto has a problem: It's trying to own a piece of Mother Nature that naturally spreads itself around. Ray Mowling, a vice president for Monsanto Canada in Mississauga, was cited as agreeing that some cross pollination occurs, and acknowledging the awkwardness of prosecuting farmers who may be inadvertently growing Monsanto seed through cross-pollination or via innocent trades with patent-violating neighbors, but added that the company considers Schmeiser's "a critical case" to win if it hopes to protect its patent rights beyond its immediate circle of paying customers.
The story notes that Berlin-based AgrEvo, for example, also sells engineered canola in Canada yet has chosen not to place restrictions on seed use. Its plan is to make money on its herbicide, Liberty, rather than on its Liberty-tolerant seeds. The more seeds sold, blown or given away,the better. Monsanto, however, does not have that option. The story says the U.S. patent on Roundup is on the verge of expiring, which means cheap generics will soon kill the company's 20-year-old cash cow. Monsanto will have to profit from Roundup-tolerant seeds, rather than from Roundup itself.
The story goes on to say that in a few years Monsanto may have a technical solution to its problem because the company is buying the commercial rights to a package of genes, developed in part by the federal government, that has come to be known as "Terminator." When inserted into seeds, the genes ensure that the resulting plants will never produce seeds of their own.
While the system could solve forever the seed piracy problem, it has already come under heavy fire from farmers and international agronomic groups because of its potential to starve subsistence farmers of the renewable seed they need. In any case, Terminator technology is not expected to be available commercially until 2005.
In Monsanto's view, there is no crisis today: Farmers can simply decide whether its seeds are worth the legal baggage they carry. And indeed, many farmers have already voted "yes" with their wallets.
Growth in Gene-Altered Crops
Total U.S. production of crop, in acres, 1998
Soybeans 72 million
Cotton 13 million
Corn 80 million
Canola 14 million
SOURCES: Monsanto, National Agricultural Statistics Service, American Soybean Association