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<nettime> Seed Pirates


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPlate/1999-02/03/100l-020399-idx.html

     [much abbreviated]

Seeds of Discord
by Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 1999

<...>

Schmeiser, 68, <a saskatchewan farmer all his life, grows>
canola for the valuable oil in its seeds. And as farmers
have done for thousands of years, he has saved some seeds
from each year's harvest to replant his fields the following
season. <he's being sued by monsanto for 'seed piracy.'>

Schmeiser is one of hundreds of farmers <...> 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. <he
says he never bought monsanto seeds, and attributes the
growth to pollen or seeds from a neighbor's farm.>

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.

"Farmers here are calling it a reign of terror," Schmeiser
says. "Everyone's looking at each other and asking, 'Did my
neighbor say something?' "

<3/4 of the world's farmers rely on saved seeds.>

"This is a very alien and threatening concept to farmers in
most of the world," said Hope Shand, research director of
Rural Advancement Foundation International, an international
farm advocacy group <...>. "Our rural communities are being
turned into corporate police states and farmers are being
turned into criminals."

<monsanto says it needs to enforce the 'no replant' policy
to cover its bioresearch costs and to make more
improvements.> 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. <mumbojumbo about greater
nutrition and the starving masses.>

"This is part of the agricultural revolution, and any
revolution is painful' <says a monsanto spokesmodel>.

Developing Products

<monsanto transferred a gene from a bacterium, "Bt," into
various crops, making them exude pesticides; and they've
engineered 'roundup ready' crops that resist monsanto
pesticides. monsanto estimates $300 million for each
commercial product, and only 1 out of every 10,000 makes it
to market. therefore they don't sell seeds--it they 'lease'
them, and punishes those who 'pirate.'>

Suing one's own customers "is a little touchy," Marshall
conceded. But after going to so much trouble to build a
better seed, "we don't want to give the technology away."

<...> 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. <patents were rarely issued let
alone enforced.>

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 that were
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<'s> 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.

"Farmers are going bonkers for these crops," said William
Kosinski, a Monsanto biotechnology educator. <...>

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.

"Cotton growers are saying that the thing they're noticing
is they're starting to hear birds again," said Hugh Grant,
co-president of Monsanto's agricultural division. <awww...>

Growers' Agreement

<enter two illinois farmers, seifert and megginson, whose
soybean and corn farms cover ~4400 acres; they're impressed
with monsanto's genetics.>

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. <seiffert says he saves some
money on pesticide and labor>

<but they don't like> 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.
<and they *really* don't like monsanto's 'tip line.' and
they *hate* monsantos 'educational' radio ads naming farmers
who've been caught saving seeds.>

<a farmer named david chaney got caught replanting and
'trading' seeds.> He settled with Monsanto, paying the
company $35,000 and signing an agreement that forbids him
from criticizing the company. "I wish I could tell you the
whole story," he said. "Legally they are right. But morally,
that's something else altogether. Mostly I wish I'd bought
their stock instead of their seed." <he doesn't know who, if
anyone, reported him. maybe no one: monsanto> conduct<s>
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 <525+ cases, ~1/2 of which>
have been settled. 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, said Lisa Safarian,
Monsanto's intellectual property protection manager.

The company has decided that the risk of alienating some
farmers is more than offset by the benefit of being able to
promise "a level playing field" for the vast majority of
honest customers, Safarian said. Besides, she said, the
money is going to a good cause: a Monsanto-created
scholarship fund to help the children of farmers go to
college. <awww...>

Rounding Up Evidence

<except that schmeiser never bought any monsanto seeds or
signed any growers agreement...> he got a call from a local
Monsanto representative. <'we heard a rumor you're using
monsanto seeds. can we test your plants?' 'nope.'> 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 <and a court ordered him to let monsanto
test his crops>.

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 time -- spilling more than enough to incriminate an
innocent farmer. <he points out a lone canola plant growing
in a place he sprayed with roundup: it should be dead. he's
got lots of documentation of natural cross-pollination with
roundup ready products>.

Ray Mowling, a vice president for Monsanto Canada <...>
agrees that some cross pollination occurs, and acknowledges
the awkwardness of prosecuting farmers who may be
inadvertently growing Monsanto seed through cross-
pollination or via innocent trades with patent-violating
neighbors. <but> 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.

Killing a Cash Cow

<...> 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.

<but the patent on roundup is about to expire>, 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.

Representatives of other U.S. seed companies have taken a
few potshots at Monsanto for how it has handled its war on
piracy. Privately, though, they express relief that patent
protection is Monsanto's problem, not theirs.

In a few years Monsanto may have a technical solution to its
problem. 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." <the
gene prevents plants from pproducing any seed>.

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.

<monsanto says> 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.

"We're not doing this [farming] for a hobby. We're looking
for net dollars," said Megginson, the Illinois farmer who
has begun using Monsanto's genes. "They're not holding a gun
to my head to make me buy their seeds." <but schmeiser
didn't 'vote with his wallet.' at least not voluntarily.>

"Every year I get catalogues from the seed salesmen, and
more and more varieties have the Roundup Ready gene even
though I don't need it," said Vincent Moye, a farmer in
Reinbeck, Iowa. "The government's looking at Microsoft too
hard. This is a bigger monopoly. We're all gonna be serfs on
our own land."

<...>

 Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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