By Gretchen Kurtz
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By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
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 came from random killing put a crimp on long-term profitability.
So Monsanto hatched a less lethal, more lucrative plan. The company attempted 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. It bred Franken-crops that 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 fields with chemicals. 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 braying about global benevolence began to look much more like a naked power grab.
Seed prices began to soar. Between 1995 and 2011, the cost of soybeans increased 325 percent. The cost of corn rose 259 percent. And the price 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, while Monsanto continued to lard away any cost savings from the technology for itself.
It offered steep discounts to independent dealers willing to restrict themselves to mostly selling Monsanto products. Those same arrangements brought severe punishment if the 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.)
Swiss biotech giant 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 chemical giants reached settlements that granted them licenses to use, sell and cross-develop Monsanto products. (Some DuPont suits are still dragging on.)
It wasn't until 2009 that the Justice Department, working in concert with several state attorneys general, began investigating the company 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."
While I appreciate Westword's support for longer form journalism like this, I'm not sure what new information it's brought to the table. "Monsanto is evil cuz here's a tangentially related quote from a competitor, and here are some angry farmers and circumstantial evidence of cronyism," is old hat by now. So what's new? Why can't organic farmers affected by GMOs litigate? Or can they and they choose not to? Why have Monsanto's products seen such success despite evidence that seems to condemn them? How does Monsanto exert monopoly pricing power when it only serves a plurality of the market? If neither Monsanto nor USDA test GM products before they go to market, what is the purpose of the approvals process? Is it simply a charade?
keep using multiple pesticides & fungicides & we'll ALL be starving soon: http://qz.com/107970/scientists-discover-whats-killing-the-bees-and-its-worse-than-you-thought/
Fracking is bad too! Yes both are banned in other countries, but not in the good ole complacent USA.
Monsatan is more than just GMO'S in the food supply! They are EVIL and only care about Money, Power, Greed and Control. I am in a lawsuit with them for murdering my Dad by knowingly exposing him to Asbestos. Monsanto has quite a history in our world and are just a very small branch of a mega-mega corporation. Check out the big picture of these corporations and their destruction of the earth and the people.
I dont like Monsanto either, but as much as GMO sucks, you know what sucks more? Starvation. A generation ago, you know before Monsanto, that used to actually happen. Locusts would wipe out the food, and people would starve to death. I wonder how quickly we would all want GMO back if we had 1000 calories a day rations until summer.
People need to stop hating frac'ing and read about GMOs. And how they are outlawed and why. This is a movement I will support.
Scum slim balls have an espionage team, that law suit targets farmers for saving seed and or if the Monsanto seed creeps into a non Monsanto neighboring field that farmer is targeted also. WHO ever heard of a farmer not allowed to save seed. PRAY the 5 million farmers that are now taking legal action for 7.7 billion, will stop the selfish greedy people in control at Monsanto. Who will surly burn in the lake of fire if they do not repent for their sins! Monsanto's soy seed is round up proof. I do not want to eat that GMO CRAP and not have knowledge or a choice. YOUWHO..you are a fool if you do!
Thank you for finally getting this out to the public. This needs to be heard and we as a human race need to stop this evil evil company.
@Ben Beeby Hippies don't care about children starving in India, all they care about is their organic carrots from Whole Foods for $12/a pound.