Frankencrops: Monsanto Seeks Control of America'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 Frankencrops 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 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.
Frankencrops: Monsanto Seeks Control of America's Food Supply
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 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," Benbrook says.
It didn't use 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," Benbrook says. "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 landmark Supreme Court decision in 1980 that allowed the patenting of living organisms. The decision was intended to increase research and innovation, but it had the opposite effect: It encouraged market concentration.
Monsanto soon would 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 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."
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. Monsanto's thick contracts dropped like shackles on the kitchen tables of every farmer who used the company's seed, allowing Monsanto access to farmers' records and fields and prohibiting them from replanting leftover seed, essentially forcing farmers to buy new seed every year — or face up to $3 million in damages.
Armed with lawyers and private investigators, the company 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, Carstensen says, 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. Runyon claims the company threatened to sue for patent infringement, despite documentation proving that he'd bought non-patented seed from local universities for years. 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 naturally it turned to Congress.
Earlier this year, a little-noticed provision was slipped into a budget resolution. The anonymous measure, pushed by U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), granted the company an unheard-of get-out-of-jail-free card, widely known as the Monsanto Protection Act.
Despite indications that GM foods could have adverse health effects, the feds never have 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 seems unconstitutional.
Not that Congress noticed. Monsanto has spent more than $10 million on campaign contributions in the past decade — and 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.
The leaks also showed State Department diplomats asking 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 Barack 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.
At the same time that Monsanto was cornering the food supply, its principal products — GM crops — were receiving less scrutiny than an NSA contractor.
Monsanto understood early on that the best way to stave off bad publicity was to limit research. Prior to a recently negotiated agreement with major universities, the company had severely restricted access to its seeds. Filmmaker Bertram Verhaag's 2010 award-winning documentary, Scientists Under Attack: Genetic Engineering in the Magnetic Field of Money, noted that nearly 95 percent of genetic-engineering research is paid for and controlled by corporations like Monsanto.
Meanwhile, former employees embedded in government make sure the feds never get too nosy.
Michael Taylor has turned that into an art form. He's gone back and forth from government to Monsanto enough times that it's no longer just a revolving door; it's a Batpole. During an early-'90s stint with the FDA, he helped usher Bovine Growth Hormone milk into the food supply and authored the decision that kept the government out of Monsanto's GM crop business.
Known as "substantial equivalence," it declared that genetically modified products are essentially the same as their non-GM counterparts — and, therefore, require no additional labeling or testing for food safety or toxicity.
Never mind that no accepted science backed his theory.
"It's simply a political calculation invented by Michael Taylor and Monsanto and adopted by U.S. federal policy-makers to resist labeling," says Jim Gerritsen, a farmer in Maine. "You have this collusion between corporations and the government, and the essence is that the people's interest isn't being served."
The FDA is a prime example. It approves GM crops by doing no testing of its own; it simply takes Monsanto's word for their safety. Amusingly enough, Monsanto spokesman Phil Angell says the company agrees that it should have nothing to do with verifying safety: "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible," he told the New York Times. "Assuring its safety is the FDA's job."
So if neither Monsanto nor the feds are doing it, who is?
The answer: no one.
So far, it appears that the GM revolution has done little more than raise the cost of food.
A 2009 study by Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked at four Monsanto seeds and found only minimal increases in yield. Since GM crops cost more to produce, their economic benefit seemed questionable at best.
"It pales in comparison to other conventional approaches," says Gurian-Sherman. "It's a lot more expensive, and it comes with a lot of baggage . . . like pesticide use, monopoly issues and control of the seed supply."
Use of those herbicides has soared as weeds and insects become increasingly resistant to them. Since GM crops were introduced in 1996, pesticide usage has increased by 404 million pounds. Last year, Syngenta, one of the world's largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major corn-soil insecticide more than doubled in 2012, a response to increased resistance to Monsanto's pesticides.
Part of the blame belongs to a monoculture that developed around farming. Farmers know it's better to rotate crops and pesticides and leave fields fallow for a season. But when corn prices are high, who wants to grow a less profitable crop? The result has been soil degradation, relatively static yields and an epidemic of resistant weeds and insects.
Weeds and insects are fighting back with their own law: that of natural selection. Last year, 49 percent of surveyed farmers reported Roundup-resistant weeds on their farms, up from 34 percent the year before. The problem costs farmers more than $1 billion annually.
Roundup-resistant pigweed can grow as thick as your arm and more than six feet high, requiring removal by hand. Many farmers simply abandon weed-choked fields.
In order to kill the pests, chemical giants like Monsanto and Dow are developing crops capable of withstanding even harsher pesticides, resulting in an endless cycle of greater pesticide use at commensurate financial and environmental cost.
Nature, as it's proved so often before, will not be easily vanquished.
"We are not making our agriculture more resistant to environmental stress, not lowering the amount of pesticides, and not creating a sustainable agricultural system that works," says Mary-Howells Martens, an organic grain farmer in New York. "There are so many things that are short-term, quick-buck kind of things, without any kind of eye to if this is going to be a good deal long-term."
The biggest problem for Monsanto's global growth: It doesn't have the same juice with foreign governments as it does with ours. That's why it relies on the State Department to work as its taxpayer-funded lobbyist abroad.
Yet this has become increasingly difficult. Other nations aren't as willing to play corporate water boy as America is. The countries that need GM seeds often can't afford them (or don't trust Monsanto). And the nations that can afford them (other than us) don't really want them (or don't trust Monsanto).
Ask Mike Mack, CEO of the Swiss biotech giant Syngenta. The Swiss, he argues, are more interested in environmental safety and food quality than in saving a few pennies at the grocery store.
"Switzerland's greatest natural resource is that it is a beautiful country that brings in a lot of tourism," he says. "If the Swiss could lower their consumption spending by 1 percent by applying high-productivity farming, they probably would not do it if it requires changing their approach to how they think about food. Countries like Switzerland are a good example where such things as GM food would be very difficult and perhaps commercially inadvisable."
Maybe Europe simply has been around the block enough to know better than to entrust its health to a bottom-line mentality. Although the European Union imports 30 million tons of GM crops annually for livestock feed, it's approved only two GM crops for human consumption.
In April, biotech companies took another hit when the European Union banned neonicotinoids — a.k.a. "neo-nics" — one of the most powerful and popular classes of insecticide in the world. The derivatives of nicotine are poisonous to plants and insects. German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta both make neo-nics, which are used to coat seeds, protecting crops in their early growth stages. In America, 90 percent of the corn crop comes with the coating.
The problem is that plants sweat out these chemicals in the morning dew, where they're picked up by bees like a morning cup of Starbucks.
Last year, Christian Krupke, a professor of entomology at Purdue University, did one of the first studies linking neo-nics to the collapse of bee colonies, which threatens the entire food system. One-quarter of the human diet is pollinated by bees.
These mysterious collapses — in which bees simply fly off and die — have been reported as far back as 1918. Yet over the past seven years, mortality rates have tripled. Some U.S. regions are witnessing the death of more than half their populations.
"We're looking at bee kills, persistently during corn-planting time," Krupke explains. "So what was killing these bees at corn planting?"
While he's still not sure how much responsibility the chemicals bear, his study indicates a link to Monsanto's GM corn, which has been widely treated with neo-nics since 2005.
But while other countries run from the problem, the U.S. government is content to let its citizens serve as guinea pigs.
The same worries apply to contamination from GM crops. Ask Frank Morton, who grows organic sugar-beet seeds in Oregon's Willamette Valley and is among the few non-GM holdouts.
This became abundantly clear in 2010, when a federal judge demanded that all U.S. farmers stop planting GM sugar beets. Farmers were surprised to find that there was very little non-GM sugar-beet seed to be had. Since the GM variety was introduced in 2005, Monsanto had driven just about everyone out of the market.
Morton's farm is just two miles from a GM sugar-beet farm. Unfortunately, beet pollen can travel as much as five miles, cross-pollinating other farmers' fields and, in the case of an organic farmer, threatening his ability to sell his crop as organic and GM-free. The contamination can arrive in the most benign ways.
He recalls how a landscaper bought potting soil from a nearby GM beet farm, then sold it to homeowners throughout the area. A scientist from Oregon State University happened to discover the error. Morton claims the landscaper was forced to retrieve the soil — lest nearby farms become contaminated — paying his customers $100 each to not say anything.
It's especially galling because GM crops have perverted longstanding property law. Organic farmers, for example, are responsible for protecting their farms from contamination, since courts have consistently refused to hold GM growers liable.
Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination; he has 30-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat. (Wheat pollen doesn't travel far.)
"Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence," says Maine farmer Gerritsen. "If it was anything but agriculture, nobody would question it. If I decided to spray my house purple and I sprayed on a day that was windy, and my purple paint drifted onto your house and contaminated your siding and shingles, there isn't a court in the nation that wouldn't in two minutes find me guilty of irresponsibly damaging your property. But when it comes to agriculture, all of a sudden the tables are turned."
Contamination isn't just about boutique organic brands, either. It maims U.S. exports, too.
Take Bayer, which grew unapproved, experimental GM rice at test plots around Louisiana State University for just one year. Within five years, these plots had contaminated 30 percent of U.S. rice acreage. No one's certain how it happened, but Bayer's rice was found as far away as Central America and Africa.
Within days of the announcement, rice futures lost $150 million in value, while U.S. rice exports dropped by 20 percent during the next year. (Bayer ended up paying $750 million in damages.)
Last month brought another hit. A Monsanto test of GM wheat mysteriously contaminated an Oregon farm eight years after the test was shut down. Japan and South Korea immediately halted imports of U.S. soft white wheat — a particularly harsh pill for the Japanese, who have used our white wheat in nearly all their cakes and confectionery since the 1960s.
Monsanto's response? It's blaming the whole mess on eco-terrorism.
Given the company's history, is it any wonder that developing countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Haiti have shied away from GM crops? Haiti felt strongly enough that in the wake of its 2010 earthquake, it turned down Monsanto's offer of seeds, even with assurances that the seed wasn't GM.
Brazil is poised to become the world's largest soybean exporter on the strength of Monsanto seed. Still, the country's farmers aren't big fans of the company. Thousands are suing Monsanto for more than $600 million after the company continued to charge them royalties two years after the expiration of its patent.
Trust, unfortunately, has never been Monsanto's strong suit. It's become one of the main motives behind the push for GM labeling.
"If they're going to allow the American people to be lab rats in an experiment, could they at least know where it is so they can decide whether they want to participate or not?" asks Lance Harvell, a Republican state representative from Maine. "If the FDA isn't going to do their job, it's time we stepped in."
Last month, Harvell's GM-labeling law overwhelmingly passed the Maine House (141-4) and Senate (35-0) and awaits the governor's signature. That makes Maine the second state (nine days after Connecticut) to pass a GM-labeling law.
The Right to Know movement has picked up steam since chemical companies defeated California's labeling initiative, thanks to a $46 million publicity campaign full of deceptive statements. A recent ABC News poll found that 93 percent of Americans surveyed support GM labeling.
When Vermont raised the issue a year ago, a Monsanto official indicated that the company might sue. But the states are smart. The new laws in both Maine and Connecticut won't take effect until other states pass similar legislation so they can share defense costs.
What's interesting is that Harvell, by his own admission, is a very conservative Republican. Yet on this issue, left and right have the same quest for greater caution.
"God gave the seed to the earth and the fruit to the trees," Harvell says. "Notice it didn't say he granted Monsanto a patent. The human body has developed with its seeds. You're making a major leap into Pandora's Box — a quantum leap that maybe the human body isn't ready to make yet."
As more information comes out, it's increasingly clear that GM seed isn't the home run it's portrayed to be. It encourages greater pesticide use, which has a negative impact on the environment and our bodies. And whether or not GM food is safe to eat, it poses a real threat to biodiversity through monopolization of the seed industry and the kind of farming monoculture that inspires.
Meanwhile, a study by the University of Canterbury in England found that non-GM crops in America and Europe are increasing their yields faster than GM crops.
"All this talk about feeding the world, it's really PR," explains Wenonah Hauter, the author of Foodopoly and executive director of Food & Water Watch. "The hope is to get into these new markets, force farmers to pay for seed, then start changing the food and eating habits of the developing world."
Since farming is such a time-honored tradition, there's a tendency to take it for granted, and that worries a lot of people. But as much as he hates GM, Bryce Stephens is sanguine.
"I've seen changes since I was little to where it is now," the Kansas farmer says. "I don't think it will last. This land and these people here have gone through cycles of boom and bust. We're just in another cycle, and it will be something different."
Provided we don't break it irreparably first.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.