The Monsanto Menace: The feds see no evil as a belligerent strongman seeks control of America's food supply

The Monsanto Menace: The feds see no evil as a belligerent strongman seeks control of America's food supply
Peter Ryan

When you're good at something, you want to leverage that. Monsanto's specialty is killing stuff.

In the early years, the St. Louis biotech giant helped pioneer such leading chemicals as DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange. Unfortunately, these breakthroughs had a tendency to kill stuff. And the torrent of lawsuits that comes from random killing put a crimp on long-term profitability.

So Monsanto hatched a less lethal, more lucrative plan. The company would attempt to take control of the world's food supply.

Monsanto's Creve Coeur headquarters hides behind trees and security checkpoints. Its business hides behind lawyers, lobbying and patents.
Monsanto's Creve Coeur headquarters hides behind trees and security checkpoints. Its business hides behind lawyers, lobbying and patents.
"Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence," says Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen.
Lottie Hedley
"Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence," says Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen.

It began in the mid-'90s, when Monsanto developed genetically modified (GM) crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beets and wheat. These Franken-crops were immune to its leading weed killer, Roundup. That meant that farmers no longer had to till the land to kill weeds, as they'd done for hundreds of years. They could simply blast their entire fields with chemicals, leaving GM crops the only thing standing. Problem solved.

The so-called no-till revolution promised greater yields, better profits for the family farm and a heightened ability to feed a growing world. But there was one small problem: Agriculture had placed a belligerent strongman in charge of the buffet line.

Monsanto knew that it needed more than genetically modified crops to squeeze out competitors, so it also began buying the biggest seed businesses, spending $12 billion by the time its splurge concluded. The company was cornering agriculture by buying up the best shelf space and distribution channels. All its boasting about global benevolence began to look much more like a naked power grab.

Seed prices soared. Between 1995 and 2011, the cost of soybeans increased 325 percent. The price of corn rose 259 percent. And the cost of genetically modified cotton jumped a stunning 516 percent.

Instead of feeding the world, Monsanto simply drove prices through the roof, taking the biggest share for itself. A study by Dr. Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University, found that rapidly increasing seed and pesticide costs were lowering farmers' incomes.

To further corner the field, Monsanto offered steep discounts to independent dealers willing to restrict themselves to mostly selling Monsanto products. And the arrangements brought severe punishment if independents ever sold out to a rival.

Intel had run a similar campaign within the tech industry, only to be drilled by the European Union with a record $1.45 billion fine for anti-competitive practices. Yet U.S. regulators showed little concern for Monsanto's expanding power.

"They're a pesticide company that's bought up seed firms," says Bill Freese, a scientist at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public-interest and environmental-advocacy group. "Business-wise, it's a beautiful, really smart strategy. It's just awful for agriculture and the environment."

Today, Monsanto seeds cover 40 percent of America's crop acres — and 27 percent worldwide.

"If you put control over plant and genetic resources into the hands of the private sector...and anybody thinks that plant breeding is still going to be used to solve society's real problems and to advance food security, I have a bridge to sell them," says Dr. Benbrook.


Seeds of Destruction
It didn't used to be like this. At one time, seed companies were just large-scale farmers who grew various strains for next year's crop. Most of the innovative hybrids and crossbreeding was done the old-fashioned way, at public universities, and the results were shared publicly.

"It was done in a completely open-sourced way," says Benbrook. "Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture exchanged all sorts of seeds with other scientists and researchers all over the world. This free trade and exchange of plant genetic resources was the foundation of progress in plant breeding. And in less than a decade, it was over."

The first crack appeared in 1970, when Congress empowered the USDA to grant exclusive marketing rights to novel strains, with two exceptions: Farmers could replant the seeds if they chose, and patented varieties had to be provided to researchers.

But that wasn't enough. Corporations wanted more control, and they got it with a dramatic, landmark Supreme Court decision in 1980, which allowed the patenting of living organisms. The decision was intended to increase research and innovation. But it had the opposite effect, encouraging market concentration.

Monsanto would soon go on its buying spree, gobbling up every rival seed company in sight. It patented the best seeds for genetic engineering, leaving only the inferior for sale as conventional, non-GM brands. (Monsanto declined an interview request for this story.)

Biotech giants Syngenta and DuPont both sued, accusing Monsanto of monopolistic practices and a "scorched-earth campaign" in its seed-company contracts. But instead of bringing reform, the companies reached settlements that granted them licenses to use, sell and cross-develop Monsanto products. (Some DuPont suits drag on.)

It wasn't until 2009 that the Justice Department, working in concert with several state attorneys general, began investigating Monsanto for antitrust violations. But three years later, the feds quietly dropped the case. (They also ignored interview requests for this story.)

"I'm told by some of those working on all of this that they had a group of states that were seriously interested," says Dr. Peter Carstensen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "They had actually found private law firms that would represent the states on fairly low fees — basically quasi-contingency — and then nobody would drop a dime. Some of the staff in the antitrust division wanted to do something, but top management — you say the word 'patent,' and they panic."


Set the Lawyers to Stun
Historically, farmers have been able to save money on seeds by using those produced by last year's crops for the coming year's planting. But such cost-saving methods are largely a thing of the past. Monsanto's thick contracts dropped like shackles on the kitchen tables of every farmer who used the company's seed, allowing the Monsanto access to farmers' records and fields and prohibiting them from replanting leftover seed, essentially forcing farmers to buy new seed every year — or face up to $3 million in damages.
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40 comments
hawkmo99
hawkmo99

All THIS administration sees...is a cash cow...AND a way to exert more control over the people... Think about it... They are strangling the private farms out of business...WHY? We had enough food when we were treating farmers right...Now we have to fake it..? Really? We didn't before... There is a sinister reason this is happening and any time the government gets into it...it will be bad...

foodisgood
foodisgood

Imagine if the free market were allowed to work in farming.  If a farmer couldn't earn a living (or even a profit) growing a particular crop, he or she wouldn't grow it.  Or, at the very least, OTHER growers would take notice and avoid growing that crop or investing in equipment & infrastructure associated with that crop.  Supply of that crop would go down, and prices would go up.  Processors & consumers would be faced with higher prices for that crop.  Would they choose to pay those higher prices?  Or would they look for alternatives?

The farmers left growing that previously unprofitable crop might eventually see higher revenues, and even profits, due to higher prices IF consumers actually were willing to pay those higher prices.  The profits would encourage the farmer to invest in better on-farm systems to produce more of that crop.  The profits might also encourage the farmer to diversify, since perhaps that initial crop is profitable ONLY when supplies are limited and prices are higher; likewise, that farmer might be aware that his/her profits are likely to encourage competitors, which will increase supply & lower prices again. 

If, however, food becomes increasingly expensive across the board, consumers might be encouraged to seek alternative sources.  They might return to growing more of their own, like millions of families used to do.  They might engage their local farmers more to grow more for local markets.  

I could go on.... but the questions that pop out include:  Is this a good scenario or not?  Are we to judge how the free market would actually work in food?  And... Do not scenario's like this start to make the position of large seed & food processing companies much more precarious than now?  A hard look at national food policies in this country as they are currently construed belies the fact that they lean very heavily towards supporting the market position & power of the larger suppliers & processors, which you may or may not agree with... but you cannot say that the free market is fully at work in food. 

Becky Mandel Currie
Becky Mandel Currie

Thank you...I'll be snacking on some Round Up ready edamame while reading atlas shrugged. All the best to you as well!

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

I won't and I wouldn't. You are terminally simple aren't you? Read books. They make you smart. That's my advice for you. I doubt that you will do it though...

Becky Mandel Currie
Becky Mandel Currie

I hope your are blessed enough to never get cancer and have to rely on modern medical technology.

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

I see the problem where our views will conflict. You believe in that guy god that fucks up the world for everyone. If you were capable of higher thought it would be worth debating you but alas you are simple. Bon apetit. Enjoy your cancer...

Becky Mandel Currie
Becky Mandel Currie

I believe God gave humans the intelligence to create and invent and advance.

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

In this day hunger comes not because there is not enough food; it comes because some are unable to either buy it or produce it. Hunger represents inequality: there are no hungry people with money. Alleviating hunger, in part, is recognizing that the right to eat is equivalent to the right to breathe, which trumps the right to make profits. The real heroes in the world of food are those who recognize this, and who work to improve the kind of low-input agriculture upon which the majority of the world’s people — and the vast majority of farmers — rely. There are hundreds of people deserving of “prizes” for this kind of work. The bigwigs at Monsanto are not among them....Nice quote I read somewhere. Sums it up nicely.

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

We could lob info all day. You believe in the machine. I don't. You believe humans are smarter than earth. I don't.

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

Very good answer...You've been trained well. Ever have a thought of your own?

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

Always amazed at people's allegiance to Monsanto without knowing one thing about them. Big Ag and Big Food have hijacked your minds while you mindlessly shovel poison down your throats and get fatter and sicker. I personally don't give a shit about any of you but I do find it amusing how ignorant and desperate to be right you all are. Eat up. Die. It's too crowded here anyway...

Chester Angel
Chester Angel

In this day hunger comes not because there is not enough food; it comes because some are unable to either buy it or produce it. Hunger represents inequality: there are no hungry people with money. Alleviating hunger, in part, is recognizing that the right to eat is equivalent to the right to breathe, which trumps the right to make profits. The real heroes in the world of food are those who recognize this, and who work to improve the kind of low-input agriculture upon which the majority of the world’s people — and the vast majority of farmers — rely. There are hundreds of people deserving of “prizes” for this kind of work. The bigwigs at Monsanto are not among them.

Andy Knight
Andy Knight

An opinion piece that pretends to be reporting. Unsupported statement, unsupported statement, unsupported statement, Monsanto ignored my interview request! Well, Chris Parker, you are not a journalist. Nobody should interview with you.

Steve Mincer
Steve Mincer

you guys don't take any advertising from restaurants that sell food made from the monsanto food supply, do you? i mean...that would be ironic.

Dave Brown
Dave Brown

Why not do a story about Norman Borlaug instead?

Becky Mandel Currie
Becky Mandel Currie

One sided story...the advances in bio tech have saved millions from starvation...it's true, look it up.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

I'm tired of Monsanto being the scapegoat for liberals who refuse to think for themselves.

"Its business hides behind lawyers, lobbying and patents." - in other words, following the law that a Democratically held Congress passed many years ago. And one Pelosi, Reid, and Obama did nothing to change when they controlled everything. Stop blaming Monsanto for playing by the rules. Change the rules if you do not like the game. But change them for everyone.

Farmers want what Monsanto has, but they do not want to pay the price for it. So don't buy it. Grow your own seed crop, just like farmers have done for centuries. Yields will go down, and prices will go up. The best farmers will make the highest profits.

dalediversity
dalediversity topcommenter

Sad that Chris Parker feels the need to pander to the stupid. But I guess that sells papers. 

technologyisgood
technologyisgood

It seems the author cruised the anti-gmo sites which are based on lies and psuedo-science.  Most farmers in this country plant gmo as a solid business choice.  Farmers have never saved corn seed because corn is a hybrid.  Punnet square?  The F2 generation will be too varied, a farmer would only want to plant the F1 generation.  As for other self pollinating crops like wheat and soy, farmers could save seed if they plant a non gm crop, but many choose not to, it becomes a storage & cleaning issue, seeds can't go right from the combine into the planter.  MON is in a very competitive market, we compete against Dow, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Bayer, + other smaller seed companies. DuPont actually sells more corn than we do, although we are a close 2nd.  Farmers have many choices.   Scientific American recently published an article about Monsanto and GMOS, it reads a bit different http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-we-trust-monsanto-with-our-food  Please think critically about both of them and come to your own conclusion.  Maybe even do some research on your own.  Try geneticliteracyproject.org, or KevinFolta kfolta.blogspot.com or randomrationality.com  All blogs by scientists or science journalists.

skepticts2
skepticts2

I miss the old days of journalism, when someone would decide to investigate an issue and gather as much information as they could from all parties involved and write a balanced perspective instead of choosing a position and seeking out information that supports it, while completely ignoring any other evidence. The author managed to write an entire article about science without actually discussing any of the (overwhelming) research that shows GMOs are safe or talking to any scientists that support the consensus. Please, Mr. Parker, leave the science journalism to science journalists. This article is a slanted, embarrassing piece of tripe. 

luckyjane9
luckyjane9

Very courageous of Chris Parker to tell the truth about "the thug of StL" considering what it is capable of doing to any opposition.  The fact is that evil Monsanto has stacked the Federal Agencies and Courts in its favor for years. The words "greedy" and "evil" come  to mind. When will their shareholders wise up to what they are doing to the world... including humanity?  Do be very careful what you are eating!   Just remember that if Monsanto really WAS an individual... it would be locked up as a psychopath!

mtoddw
mtoddw

Great article. Hopefully everyone that reads this passes this article far and wide and people will get involved to help stop monsanto.

galen.vinson
galen.vinson

This article on monsanto is both extremely good, but frightening.  Here in europe they have done a respectiable job blocking the GMO spread but how long.  One comment, that Obama had appointed to the head of the FDA a monsanto executive.  Isn't that like letting the wolf guard the chickens ?   When will the insanity stop.  The bee population is almost gone in the united states, and god knows how much damage the GMOs do to the human beings, not to mention the sterile cows from eatting the corn.  The effects from agent orange in vietnam are well documented, that "roundup" is pretty much the same stuff nobody seems to talk about and the effects its use will have on our world.  The population in vietnam is still having massive birthdefects and cancers all related to the use of agent orange.  Maybe this is part of the government's drive for a "one world order"... Fits well into their destruction of the contitution with things like the patriot act and the national military authorization act , etc. 

technologyisgood
technologyisgood

But farmers aren't allowed to set the price for their crops, and those prices constantly flucuate based on supply and demand and commodity traders.  Food scares can also drastically alter the price.  My dad watched the price of cattle drop after the media released reports of a Canadian cow that possibly had mad cow disease, as consumers suddenly were worried about eating beef.  Unfortunately it was at the same time he had planned to sell his feeder cattle, so in his case food scare = lost profits.  Even though his cattle were perfectly healthy.

And yes people used to grow their own food, but possibly because it wasn't so convenient to buy it.  Like I said I grew up on a farm, my parents have a garden my grandma has an amazing garden and I have no desire to have a garden.  It's not something I enjoy, and it's not something I have time for.  I mentioned that my grandma has an amazing garden, she also raised chickens and made fresh bread all the time, but she didn't work outside the home either, if she had she might not have had time to do all those things.

foodisgood
foodisgood

May I ask:  Is it more important to increase yields across the board every year?  Or.... is it more important to raise farmer incomes, maybe even imagine a day when farmers don't require direct payments to grow commodities like corn?  


The inherent contradiction between 'increased yields' and 'increased farmer income' do NOT always go hand in hand.  Increased yields can lead to surplus, which can drive down the price of a commodity, and lower farmer profits & income.  Whereas, lower yields can jack the price up, which can actually lead to higher farmer profits & income.  Occasionally you can have both, but not very often.  

It just seems like there is a lot of top-down, centralized, economic theorizing going on with food, and has been for several decades... and yet there remain vague, generalized references to free market principles as if they are actually in play for farmers.  

Would you agree or disagree with the claim that our national, centralized policy is bent on higher yields & lower prices for food?  In order to achieve lower prices, we CANNOT allow the market to actually function, and thus publicly pay farmers directly to grow specific crops, subsidize public insurance policies, maintain price supports, etc.  All of which, REALLY helps build the profits of the suppliers & buyers (processors)... not the farmers.  

foodisgood
foodisgood

@technologyisgood Monsanto has a credibility gap with lots of people because of the their past success as a producer of less-than-savory chemicals coupled with a habit of denying the toxicity of said chemicals.  It doesn't help their credibility with sectors of the public when they and their products are promoted as if there could be no possible problem at all, like their the perfect fit for what ails world food and farming.  The Scientific American article you referenced is likewise not exactly an independent analysis, written as it is by an author who clearly has a stake in the success and adoption of GM technology.    

Science, in general, also has a credibility gap when it is wedded to big business and big government.  Maybe what it claims is true, perhaps.... but it's painfully clear that there is more at stake than mere science.  Moreover, it's rare to hear a promotion of GM  technology without hearing claims that are at root not 'scientific' at all, like the  role of GMO in combating future world food shortages, in reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture, or in raising farmer income, which tends to be disingenuous at best.  Then there's the habit of painting the anti-GMO 'crowd' as a clearly mis-informed straw man who could care less about actually learning about the subject, along with vague references to "lies and pseudo-science."  Added to this is an obvious antagonism toward non-GMO agriculture (especially 'organic' methods), which are spoken of as if they are anti-science or anti-technology. 

foodisgood
foodisgood

@skepticts2 Have you ever read food industry periodicals?  I'm not sure they would match your standard for the "old days of journalism".  Moreover, do you really believe this story is only about science.... or that science is beyond questioning?  Unfortunately science does not have a blemish-free record in making grandiose claims about new discoveries, especially once science merges with big business and big government.  At any given point, our science-based knowledge is raw & incomplete.  So it's suspicious hear such admonitions to just "trust the science and shut up with your ignorant questions."  It's not like scientists working in industry or government are in the best position to provide moral advice on the actual application or widespread adoption of their new technologies.  There are layers of incentives in the scientific community to support certain outcomes.  And if there aren't, then scientists are more angelic than the rest of humanity.

dalediversity
dalediversity topcommenter

@mtoddw Stop them from doing what? Increasing yields? Lowering inputs? (I realize you have no idea what either term means)

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@mtoddw , start your little war on Monsanto. Picket their plant. Send hard working employees home and run them out of business. See how many more people starve. Congratulate yourself on stopping that evil Monsanto as your neighbors die.

scientist
scientist

@galen.vinson What the heck have the bees to do with anything? The bees are dying due to a chemical class called neonicotinoids, and most likely other pesticide spray usage. These are a chemical coating sprayed onto seeds. They are not a GMO. Also Monsanto does not use them. If anything, having a GMO version of the pesticide would be safer for bees, as the bees do not eat the plant tissue where the pesticide is located.

As for Roundup being just like Agent Orange: No. It's a very different chemical. Just look up wikipedia if you don't believe me. Roundup is a chemical called glyphosate. Glyphosate is a glycine (a very small part of almost every single protein in anything living) combined with a phosphate. It is classed as an organophosphate. It happens to function by interfering in a biochemical pathway. It also happens to break down very quickly in the presence of metal ions. It just so happens that metal ions are present in very high amounts in soil. There are certainly a number of organophosphates that are not particularly nice chemicals, and even harmful to humans, but that particular one isn't. 

As for the rest of it, yes there certainly is a potential conflict of interest. If you are concerned why don't you try discussing things with your representative. As soon as you start talking about "one world order" you start to come across sounding like a conspiracy nut. That may or may not be true, I'm just saying how your comment appears at face value.


technologyisgood
technologyisgood

The SciAm author is a professor at Penn State, why would you assume that she has an agenda beyond putting GM tech into context?  I'm not sure that I get your argument that the claims aren't scientific.  The claims are all benefits of the science.  Bt corn for example has lots less Bt in it compared to organic corn sprayed with Bt pesticide, which organic farmers are allowed to use as it's considered "natural."  

It's funny you bring up the straw man argument since that's all the antis ever use.  The only thing the Monsanto company of today shares with the company that made AO for the US gov. during the Vietnam War is the name.    And the anti crowd IS misinformed, probably becuase they are getting their information from so called experts who have absolutely no scientific background.  Jeffery Smith, really?  Pictures of vegetables with syringes, or children depicted as zombies after eating corn are other good examples.  I think there is zero effort made to understand the science.  I have nothing against organic, Monsanto sells to organic farmers as well, and every farmer should be able to choose their production method.  However  the organic industry, with a revenue much higher than Monsanto, spreads fear about a technology that is perfectly safe, simply to increase market share, and I think that is a problem.

skepticts2
skepticts2

@foodisgood @skepticts2 Don't play with matches near that strawman you've created. Perhaps you could point to where it is in my comment where I said "trust the science and shut up with your ignorant questions." What I said was this article is missing any discussion of the evidence of GMO safety. This technology is not new and there are plenty of studies available that have not been done by the government or the food industry. Scientists actually go through years of ethics training, but then you don't know that because nobody bothers to ask those kinds of questions. They only seek information that confirms what they already believe, as the author here has done. 

foodisgood
foodisgood

@technologyisgood First, in comparing revenues of Monsanto versus those of the organic industry, you're comparing sales of seed versus finished retail products, right?  It's just interesting when anyone makes it sound as if a company like Monsanto is somehow an economic underdog, and then references numbers that are substantively different.  

Second, this has never been just about the science.  The science could, on paper, be awesome.  The scientists could be the most wonderful people in the world.  But scientists have very little to do with how their science is actually used or implemented.  Nor are they in a position to control its use should it be used improperly.  Not to make a direct comparison, but science was able to unlock the power of the atom... but was in no good position to control its power once unleashed upon the world.  Politics & the practices of large corporations matter!  Their practices infect the science and drive the issue.  The incentives of big governments and big business are sometimes quite different than the incentives of science.  So, when discussing new innovations in bio-technology, there's no easy way to separate a discussion of the science from a discussion of it's economic & political uses & effects.  

Third, even so, what I was trying to point out is Science' (or at least how it's economic products are presented to the public) does not have a blemish-free record.  Which is why it's difficult to simply 'understand the science', accept it and move on.  Again, when wedded to big business, the inherent limitations of science at any given point are often conveniently ignored when breakthroughs are implemented on a wide scale.  Has the public never heard that something is totally safe, or without side effects, even though a particular product is, in fact, not exactly safe?  I'm not sure that a company like Monsanto wasn't assuring the public that their chemicals were totally safe... when some of them were not as safe as they would assure.  There is simply a natural skepticism when a profit-seeking business touts a new miracle technology that will make everything better and has no problems whatsoever.  It's like, haven't we heard that before?  So... whether it's scientifically sound or not, there is a credibility problem here that admonitions to just trust the science fail to address.  Despite extreme depictions of GM products you mentioned, do you deny that there could be legitimate concerns about the widespread use & implementation of GM crops?  If so, I would argue that's part of the problem.  If legitimate concerns are rejected or immediately dismissed by the scientific community, then the level of trust in the science is not well served. 


Regarding Bt...  Are you suggesting that the use of Bt on an organic corn field is more toxic to the environment than GM corn?  I think the problem with the GM corn is that it exposes the Bt protein to all insects at all times of the growing season.  Which can make Bt much less effective over time.   I would say this is different than making a few targeted sprays periodically. 

 
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