The Monsanto menace takes over

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

The Monsanto menace takes over
Illustration by 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.

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 the company's 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," says 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 were 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

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19 comments
ask.4j
ask.4j

Current members of the board of directors of Monsanto are:

  • David L. Chicoine, president of South Dakota State University Yikes!
  • Hugh Grant, president and CEO (" a Scottish-born business executive and CEO ..."Hugh Grant Is Elected President and Chief Executive Officer of Monsanto"--Scotland--isn't that where mad cow disease was created?
  • Arthur H. Harper, managing partner of GenNx360 Capital Partners ("As front-line operating executives at General Electric, several of our senior partners led and transformed diverse industrial businesses; generating billions in operating profits. ")
  • Gwendolyn King, president of Podium Prose, a speakers bureau
  • Laura K. Ipsen, senior VP and general manager of Connected Energy Networks at Cisco Systems, Inc.(NASDAQ:CSCO)
  • C. Steven McMillan, former chairman and CEO of the Sara Lee Corporation  (McMillan=Cargil)
  • William U. Parfet, chief executive officer of MPI Research Inc. ("...built its reputation on its toxicological experience and knowledge with small molecules. However, the company is ahead of the curve in responding to recent market trends with biotechnology-derived products, commonly known as “biologics,” or biopharmaceuticals.")
  • Janice L. Fields, president of McDonald's USA (food that doesn't rot or nutritious -my personal thouts/experience)
  • George H. Poste, chief executive of Health Technology Networks
  • Jon R. Moeller, chief financial officer of The Procter & Gamble Company.[64][65]

Lobbyist--here's one example: http://www.ibtimes.com/army-lobbyists-led-monsanto-helped-neuter-gmo-labeling-law-connecticut-1295489


that's one powerful board but isn't it just as easy to make lots of money creating edible safe food?  do we really need to kill every weed, insects and small animal that attacks crops resulting in food that may harm those who eat it?  The world is protesting and here's what's going on in your world:  http://occupy-monsanto.com/


their moto is "feeding the world" or is this a new form of birth control--kill off the poor.  sad but making lots of money isn't satisfying enough, complete world control is the ultimate level of self-serving satisfaction.  Oh there's lots of stuff out there about Monsanto to read most is bs but it is a sign that "we've had enough and we're not taking it any more" and our main weapon is sarcasm which just confuses and voids any real protests.

ExpertShot
ExpertShot topcommenter

I wonder how much I can get paid writing for Monsanto on comments like these?  Does anyone know? 

earl.jacob.netwal
earl.jacob.netwal

The city pages should be ashamed to print this yellow journalism.

jujucar2002
jujucar2002

Maybe someday they will see the connection between Celiac and other food intolerances like Gluten intolerance and sensitivity. Those illnesses exploded as Monsanto products became more and more widespread. I have to be careful what foods I eat, most foods make me explosively ill. 

We need labelling on our foods so those of us who cannot tolerate these modified non-foods can steer clear of them.

gratefulmom
gratefulmom

Deepest thanks for your well-informed coverage of this important issue.  GMOs are next cigarettes--the FDA has totally abdicated its job protecting us from these "foods." 

Even the University of Minnesota says HALF of the studies they reviewed showed risk inherent in eating GMOs. And most of the rest are industry funded. 

Minnesota has a bill in the House and Senate to label GMOs--at least we should be able to decide whether we eat GMOs or not. But that's only the first step. Farmers are taking their livestock off GMO feed because they're becoming sick and infertile--and we're still feeding them to our kids.

No yield increases, toxic chemicals, health risks for all of us, profits for big biotech. It's sad that our government is in the pocket of this industry. Twenty years from now we're all going to be talking about who was to blame for letting us eat untested GMOs for so long and no one will take responsibility.

Look for the non-GMO seal, organize to pass labeling, and do all you can to fight the corporate takeover and contamination of the food on which we all depend.

RSweeney
RSweeney

"Learning" of Monsanto from this biased propaganda screed is like learning African-American history from the KKK.

Monsanto's seed patents expire in 20 years, to be free for ALL.

The first Roundup-ready seed to expire is soybean, becoming free in 2014.

Non-gmo seed is available, no one FORCES farmers to buy GMO, but farmers prefer the lower cost farming and greater yields provided by the GMO varieties. Roundup ready saves an immense amount of expensive tractor fuel and no-til has allowed America to avoid a dust bowl despite droughts.


Take the ignorant 2 minute hate somewhere else.

anjh
anjh

My backyard squirrels won't eat GM corn.

Yvonne Schram
Yvonne Schram

If we had labeled food, we could choose to stop buying GMOs.

Drewey
Drewey topcommenter

Why would a "job creator" hurt us? This sounds like more "lame stream media" brainwashing. This is the kind if governing that happens when we are completely divided as a country. While we waste our time arguing about simple equality issues and backwards abortion laws politicians are playing yes men to guys with a shit load if cash.

RSweeney
RSweeney

@jujucar2002  

So you believe that a gluten molecule from one corn ear is different from another?

How about the sugar molecules in GMO beets? 

foodisgood
foodisgood

@RSweeney Round-up Ready seeds lose their effectiveness much earlier than 20 years.  In mono-culture systems, pests, weeds, & disease respond as if on cue every time.  GM crops solve nothing.  They simply prolong an agri-business model that has only existed a relatively short time on a massive scale.  

pammanda
pammanda

@RSweeney Actually, seed diversity is going down in countries that grow GMOs...Nongmo varieties are simply not available to them.  Patents are going to be extended via trade agreements (see the TTIP, TPP), plus it doesn't matter as Roundup is not working any more so they just create new patented varieties to replace them.  Please dig deeper before spreading your hate. 

earl.jacob.netwal
earl.jacob.netwal

@anjh 

Corn's a great example, it's not a natural food to begin with, It was cross bread recently in history. ~5,000 years ago. Virtually all the corn you see today are hybrids form the 1860s and on.

RSweeney
RSweeney

@foodisgood @RSweeney  

We have lived (in the US) in monoculture system of agriculture for over 100 years.

But you are correct, evolution never sleeps.

RSweeney
RSweeney

@pammanda  

So here we are in a 2 minute hate screed against Monsanto and I am the one spreading hate?

Please.

 

 
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