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.)