Monsanto: The Belligerent Strongman Trying to Control America's Food Supply

And the government that looks the other way.

Monsanto: The Belligerent Strongman Trying to Control 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.

Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination, and has 30-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat.
Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination, and has 30-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat.
"Business-wise, it's a beautiful, really smart strategy. It's just awful for agriculture and the environment."
—Bill Freese, the Center for Food Safety
"Business-wise, it's a beautiful, really smart strategy. It's just awful for agriculture and the environment." —Bill Freese, the Center for Food Safety

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 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," Benbrook says.


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," Benbrook says. "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."


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11 comments
gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

I remember working as a FedX tracking monitor for a major Dallas law firm that was supplying part of the defense of Monsanto after the Bhopal incident, the poisonous gas leak responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people.  Since I was dead-set against what Monsanto had done and how Monsanto was trying to wriggle like a worm out of accepting any responsibility for chemical murder quite similar to Nazi concentration camps, when a "crucial" package of documents involving Monsanto's wormy defense crossed my desk, I came about a finger's click away from sending the package to Point Barrow, Alaska, rather than to India.  If I had, I most certainly would have lost my job, but Monsanto's defense might have been compromised. 

Isn't it just great how employees cannot act with any sense of "individual sovereignty" or "personal responsibility" when on the job? 

Personally, I'd like to drown the executive staff of Monsanto in a big tub of Roundup. 

RageFury
RageFury

"The so-called no-till revolution promised greater yields"

I have read that the GMO crops do not always produce greater yields.

nd68
nd68

Monsanto is pure evil. What the heck do we do? 

I buy local as much as possible, eat natural or organic, but I understand it's hard to source certain non-GMO ingredients. Educate me, please.

Obummer
Obummer

Yo eyz too gots uh bridge ah wants ta uh sells you.

nd68
nd68

@Obummer If you've ever heard the terms "as popular as a fart in church" or "went over like a lead balloon," that's you, dude. 

Again, I'm telling you this as a friend. Your bit doesn't fly.

nd68
nd68

@Obummer Dude, your comments, and I've read a LOT of them...fall flatter than anything I've ever seen. No likes, no replies, nothing. You need to find a new bit, seriously. Because this one isn't funny at all. 

I'm telling you this as a friend, and friends are up front with each other. It's really bad, dude.

Obummer
Obummer

@nd68@Obummer 

Yo as uh friend eyez say dat use obviously gots uh different sense o' humor than eyez do, and yo if use don’ts disparage whats eyez say again eyez won’ts uh disparage whats use say.

 

 

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