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The Monsanto Menace

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

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.

University of Wisconsin Law School professor Peter Carstensen notes that Monsanto's seed police are the Pinkertons. "These are the strikebreakers, the railroad goons. It's deja vu all over again."
University of Wisconsin Law School professor Peter Carstensen notes that Monsanto's seed police are the Pinkertons. "These are the strikebreakers, the railroad goons. It's deja vu all over again."
"They're a pesticide company that's bought up seed firms," says Bill Freese, of the Center for Food Safety. "Business-wise, it's a beautiful, really smart strategy. It's just awful for agriculture and the environment."
"They're a pesticide company that's bought up seed firms," says Bill Freese, of the Center for Food Safety. "Business-wise, it's a beautiful, really smart strategy. It's just awful for agriculture and the environment."

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 tamping 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 non-profit 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 cross-breeding 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 the 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."

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2 comments
AmaRose
AmaRose

Thank you for this wonderfully insightful article. So many argue we need GM crops to keep the cost of food down and you have squashed that in this article and you have shed light on these modern day tyrants. I did however stumble across this article to find restaurants that through there partnerships support Monsanto. Would you know more on that? I am anti Monsanto I gear toward buying Organic but everyone likes to go out to eat every now and again. I want to make sure I am not supporting these monsters when I do. Thanks, Ama Rose

paval
paval topcommenter

Excellent article, but being a food article it should have added some of the likely bad boys in the supermarket shelves for GMO content:

- Huge commercial chocolate makers use soy lecithin as an emulsifier. A very high percentage of all soy grown in the US is GMO. Look for non-GMO soy lecithin labeling on Chocolate bars

- anything containing corn (HFCS, syrup, starch, etc) in any form is rather suspicious, specially if its used instead of sugar. That means its used to make a cheaper product not necessarily better. Huge red flag in my book

-  soy products produced in the US due to the high amount of soy being produced in GMO

- cottonseed oil, the new mass usage oil of the food industry

read further on http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/ 


Labeling is always the best way. If you want to be a cheap producer and use everything the cheapest. But label it as such so consumers can decide if they want it or not. I am certain most consumers will decide against the bad stuff.

 
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