monsanto postcard

Monsanto began as a chemical company. In the mid-’50s, the company sponsored the ‘Chemitron’ exhibit at Disneyland. This is a postcard from the exhibit.

Before Paul Bremer left his job as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq he issued an order that “farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties.” First things first, right. Iraq was riven by faction, war and an imploding economy. It wasn’t safe to go to the market to buy a cup of rice, but the U.S. government saw to it that rights to genetically modified seeds were protected.

This is one tidbit in a long story in Vanity Fair by reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele about Monsanto, the chemical company that has become a purveyor of seeds worldwide. “And controlling the seeds is not some abstraction,” write Barlett and Steele. “Whoever provides the world’s seeds controls the world’s food supply.”


Clay Bennett cartoon.

Monsanto’s strategy has certainly been profitable. On Wednesday, the company reported that its second quarter profits rose 83 percent, and that its sales grew 45 percent to $3.78 billion. Both tallies beat forecasts. The company expects to double operating profits in the next five years.

On the same day that Monsanto announced record profits, the New York Times reported on the front page that a consultant for the company had bribed an Indonesian official to “win looser environmental regulations for Monsanto’s cotton crops,” reporter Eric Lichtblau wrote, quoting from court records. The bribe was made with the approval of a senior Monsanto official — it came in an envelope stuffed with hundred dollar bills — and was then covered up with fake invoices.

The Vanity Fair article tells the Monsanto story from the point of view of rural America. Barlett and Steele’s report begins in Eagleville, Missouri, where a Monsanto investigator accused Gary Rinehart of planting the company’s genetically altered soybean seed in violation of the Monsanto patent. The company eventually filed suit against Rinehart — which was silly because Rinehart was a store owner not a farmer. It didn’t matter, however. Monsanto was out to protect its rights and, well, sometimes mistakes are made.

Barlett and Steele write:

Scenes like this are playing out in many parts of rural America these days as Monsanto goes after farmers, farmers’ co-ops, seed dealers—anyone it suspects may have infringed its patents of genetically modified seeds. As interviews and reams of court documents reveal, Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country. They fan out into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants about farming activities. Farmers say that some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors. Others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records. Farmers call them the “seed police” and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics.

Monsanto is most concerned with protecting the seed it developed that works with its Roundup brand herbicide. Roundup-ready seed allows growers to treat fields with the herbicide without damaging the plants. The weeds die, but the soybeans survive. Monsanto contends it spends $2 million a day on research and that it has every right to protect its investment.

A newspaper ad for Monsanto’s Chemitron exhibit at Disneyland. See Kevin Kidney’s description of the exhibit and the art.
Photo: Miehana

(Another interesting fact in this story: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney in Monsanto’s corporate office in the 1970s, and, according to the authors, he “wrote the Supreme Court opinion in a crucial G.M.-seed patent-rights case in 2001 that benefited Monsanto and all G.M.-seed companies.”)

The Barlett and Steele article tells how Monsanto hires private investigators to find those who save seed from previous years instead of buying new seed from the company. The Center for Food Safety has found 112 lawsuits filed by Monsanto against farmers in 27 states.

You can get on Monsanto’s bad side even if you want nothing to do with the company’s products. Monsanto’s battle against dairyman Jeff Kleinpeter has made him a local celebrity around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Kleinpeter Dairy does not use growth hormones (another Monsanto product) and advertises its milk as growth hormone-free. (On the Kleinpeter website, the dairy says proudly, “We treat our cows with love…not rBGH!” — the Monsanto compound that increases milk production.)

Ben Kleinpeter of the Kleinpeter Dairy

The Kleinpeters put the fact that their cows were not treated with growth hormones on their milk jugs and that’s what got the family farm crossways with Monsanto. (The dairy’s label reads: “From Cows Not Treated with rBGH.”) The company claimed that the label violated federal rules against “deceptive practices” and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC said there was no problem with this kind of advertising, so Monsanto shifted its focus to the states. There are bills now pending in New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Utah and Missouri that would ban this kind of labeling on milk. The fight is particularly hot now in Ohio, where the state Department of Agriculture backs regulations that would restrict consumer information on milk labels.

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