Longform

Monsanto's plan to take over the world's food supply

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"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

Historically, farmers have been able to save money on seeds by using those produced by last year's crops for the coming year's planting. But such cost-saving methods are largely a thing of the past, thanks to Monsanto and other big agricultural concerns. The thick, legalese-laden contracts dropped like shackles on the kitchen tables of farmers who use Monsanto seed afford the company access to said farmers' records and fields; they also prohibit them from replanting leftover seed, essentially forcing them to buy new every year — or face up to $3 million in damages.

Armed with lawyers and private investigators, Monsanto has embarked on a campaign of spying and intimidation to stop any farmer from replanting his seeds.

Farmers call them the "seed police," using words such as "gestapo" and "mafia" to describe the company's tactics. Monsanto's agents fan out into small towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants. Some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors; others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them into signing papers that give Monsanto access to their private records.

Leading the charge, says Dr. Carstensen, is the private police force that once terrorized union organizers from another generation. "You know who does their policing?" he chuckles ruefully. "The Pinkertons. These are the strikebreakers, the railroad goons. It's déjà vu all over again."

In one case, Monsanto accused Indiana farmer David Runyon of illegally using its soybean seeds and, according to Runyon, threatened to sue for patent infringement, despite documentation proving that he'd bought non-patented seed from local universities for years. While attempting to pressure Runyon, Monsanto's lawyer claimed the company had an agreement with the Indiana Department of Agriculture to search his land.

One problem: Indiana didn't have a Department of Agriculture at the time.

But most cases never go to trial. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety estimated that Monsanto had pressured as many as 4,500 farmers into paying settlements worth as much as $160 million.

Yet Monsanto wanted even more leverage. So it naturally turned to Congress.

Earlier this year, a little-noticed provision was slipped into a budget resolution. The anonymous measure, pushed by Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), granted the company an unheard-of get-out-of-jail-free card, derisively dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act by critics.

Despite indications that GM foods could have adverse health effects, the feds have never bothered to extensively study them. Instead, they've basically taken Monsanto's word that all is kosher. So organic farmers and their allies sued the company in 2009, claiming that Monsanto's GM sugar beets had not been studied enough. A year later, a judge agreed, ordering all recently planted GM sugar-beet crops destroyed until their environmental impact was studied.

The Monsanto Protection Act was designed to end such rulings. It essentially bars judges from intervening in the midst of lawsuits — a notion that would seem highly unconstitutional.

Not that Congress noticed. Monsanto has spent more than $10 million on campaign contributions in the past decade — plus another $70 million on lobbying since 1998. The money speaks so loudly that Congress has become tone-deaf.

In fact, the U.S. government has become Monsanto's de facto lobbyist in countries distrustful of GM safety. Two years ago, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables showing how the feds had lobbied foreign governments to weaken laws and encourage the planting of genetically modified crops in Third World countries.

Other wires from State Department diplomats ask for money to fly in corporate flacks to lean on government officials. Even Mr. Environment, former vice-president Al Gore, was key in getting France to briefly approve Monsanto's GM corn.

These days, the company has infiltrated the highest levels of government. It has ties to the Supreme Court (former Monsanto lawyer Clarence Thomas), with former and current employees in high-level posts at the USDA and the FDA.

But the real coup came when President Obama appointed former Monsanto vice president Michael Taylor as the FDA's new Deputy Commissioner for Foods. It was akin to making George Zimmerman the czar of gun safety.

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker