Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds
by William Neuman and Andrew Pollack / May 3, 2010
For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. But not this year. On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted. Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing. “We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.” Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water. “It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.
The first resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Since then, the problem has spread, with 10 resistant species in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres, predominantly soybeans, cotton and corn. The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds.
Roundup — originally made by Monsanto but now also sold by others under the generic name glyphosate — has been little short of a miracle chemical for farmers. It kills a broad spectrum of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact. Sales took off in the late 1990s, after Monsanto created its brand of Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed. Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States. But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.
At least 10 species of Roundup-resistant weeds have infested millions of acres in 22 states since 2000.
Now, Roundup-resistant weeds like horseweed and giant ragweed are forcing farmers to go back to more expensive techniques that they had long ago abandoned. Mr. Anderson, the farmer, is wrestling with a particularly tenacious species of glyphosate-resistant pest called Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, whose resistant form began seriously infesting farms in western Tennessee only last year. Pigweed can grow three inches a day and reach seven feet or more, choking out crops; it is so sturdy that it can damage harvesting equipment. In an attempt to kill the pest before it becomes that big, Mr. Anderson and his neighbors are plowing their fields and mixing herbicides into the soil.
That threatens to reverse one of the agricultural advances bolstered by the Roundup revolution: minimum-till farming. By combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, farmers did not have to plow under the weeds to control them. That reduced erosion, the runoff of chemicals into waterways and the use of fuel for tractors. If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment. “The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.
So far, weed scientists estimate that the total amount of United States farmland afflicted by Roundup-resistant weeds is relatively small — seven million to 10 million acres, according to Ian Heap, director of the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, which is financed by the agricultural chemical industry. There are roughly 170 million acres planted with corn, soybeans and cotton, the crops most affected. Roundup-resistant weeds are also found in several other countries, including Australia, China and Brazil, according to the survey.
Monsanto, which once argued that resistance would not become a major problem, now cautions against exaggerating its impact. “It’s a serious issue, but it’s manageable,” said Rick Cole, who manages weed resistance issues in the United States for the company. Of course, Monsanto stands to lose a lot of business if farmers use less Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds. “You’re having to add another product with the Roundup to kill your weeds,” said Steve Doster, a corn and soybean farmer in Barnum, Iowa. “So then why are we buying the Roundup Ready product?”
Monsanto argues that Roundup still controls hundreds of weeds. But the company is concerned enough about the problem that it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup. Monsanto and other agricultural biotech companies are also developing genetically engineered crops resistant to other herbicides. Bayer is already selling cotton and soybeans resistant to glufosinate, another weedkiller. Monsanto’s newest corn is tolerant of both glyphosate and glufosinate, and the company is developing crops resistant to dicamba, an older pesticide. Syngenta is developing soybeans tolerant of its Callisto product. And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War.
Still, scientists and farmers say that glyphosate is a once-in-a-century discovery, and steps need to be taken to preserve its effectiveness. Glyphosate “is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling disease,” Stephen B. Powles, an Australian weed expert, wrote in a commentary in January in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Research Council, which advises the federal government on scientific matters, sounded its own warning last month, saying that the emergence of resistant weeds jeopardized the substantial benefits that genetically engineered crops were providing to farmers and the environment.
Weed scientists are urging farmers to alternate glyphosate with other herbicides. But the price of glyphosate has been falling as competition increases from generic versions, encouraging farmers to keep relying on it. Something needs to be done, said Louie Perry Jr., a cotton grower whose great-great-grandfather started his farm in Moultrie, Ga., in 1830. Georgia has been one of the states hit hardest by Roundup-resistant pigweed, and Mr. Perry said the pest could pose as big a threat to cotton farming in the South as the beetle that devastated the industry in the early 20th century. “If we don’t whip this thing, it’s going to be like the boll weevil did to cotton,” said Mr. Perry, who is also chairman of the Georgia Cotton Commission. “It will take it away.”
STERILE SEED MONOPOLY
Monsanto GMO Ignites Big Seed War
by Frank Morris / January 12, 2010
Even though deep snowdrifts cover his fields in eastern Kansas, Luke Ulrich, a corn and soybean farmer here, is thinking about spring. It’s time to buy seed again, but hundreds of seed companies have gone under in the past two decades. Ulrich remembers the days before genetically modified seeds upended the industry. Critics of the big agriculture biotech company Monsanto say its popular Roundup Ready technology is to blame for that. Roundup Ready is a line of gene-modified seeds that inoculate plants against a herbicide, Roundup, also made by Monsanto, that kills just about everything else. “Ever since they’ve come out with the Roundup Ready trait and that became popular and basically took over farming, we’ve seen significant increases every single year,” Ulrich says. His seed costs shot up almost 50 percent last year. That’s because farmers are contractually prohibited from saving seeds and planting them the following year. Farmers face lawsuits if they try to save and replant the genetically modified seed because they don’t own the technology. While they bristle at that, they love the Roundup Ready seed. “There’s nothing like Roundup. A monkey could farm with it,” Ulrich says.
‘Amazing Amount Of Leverage’
More than 9 out of 10 soybean seeds carry the Roundup Ready trait. It’s about the same for cotton and just a little lower for corn. “Farmers will not buy soybeans without Roundup Ready in it. So, that gives Monsanto an amazing amount of leverage,” says Jim Denvir, a lawyer working for DuPont. DuPont owns Pioneer, a competing seed company. Pioneer licenses the Roundup Ready trait from Monsanto, as do about 150 other seed companies. Those agreements control which other genetics competing companies can mix with the Roundup Ready trait. Last year, Monsanto sued to stop Pioneer from “stacking” Roundup Ready with another trait. Denvir says Pioneer complained to the Justice Department. “A seed company can’t stay in business without offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it, so if they want to stay in that business, essentially they have to do what Monsanto tells them to do,” Denvir says.
Monsanto’s critics say it used this “platform monopoly” to crush many competitors. Chris Holman, a patent lawyer who teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, likens it to Microsoft and its dominant Windows operating system. “Because of the structure of the industry, they are able to really drive participants in the industry into using their technology,” Holman says. Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles says those allegations are unfair, though he concedes they’re coming at the company fast and furious. “We’re actively working to address questions from regulators, both the Department of Justice and state attorneys general as well as other parties in the industry, to address any questions they have about our business,” Quarles says. But Monsanto is pushing ahead. It will soon market a corn seed combining eight separate genetically engineered traits.
Roundup Ready 2 Yield
Roundup Ready technology was developed at Monsanto’s world headquarters in St. Louis. Jim Tobin, a vice president of Monsanto, says it sells itself. “Farmers get to vote every year before they plant, and it’s that vote each year that determines who has the largest market share or volume,” Tobin says. Monsanto spent huge amounts of money and took big risks to develop the Roundup Ready trait. Tobin says it has revolutionized agriculture. But now, “Well, we’ve invented something new,” he says. It’s called Roundup Ready 2 Yield. It uses the gene as the original, just placed in a different spot in the genome. Monsanto says that boosts yield. Interesting timing: Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready 1 expires in 2014 and with it, a revenue stream of maybe half a billion dollars a year in royalties. That’s unless it can switch farmers over to Roundup Ready 2. “We’d like to have everyone in the soybean business, seed business using the trait,” Tobin says.
Monsanto’s putting the new trait in all its best soybean seeds. And Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, says Monsanto is forcing its licensees to do the same. He charges that Monsanto is trying to make Roundup Ready 1 disappear. “That’s our concern: bridging or switching from one patented product, Roundup Ready 1, to the next-generation Roundup Ready 2 Yield, doesn’t allow competition for the original technology,” Schickler says. Unlike in many other industries, there’s no clear path for a genetically modified crop to go generic. As it stands, generic providers would probably still need access to Monsanto’s proprietary data to get federal approval to sell the Roundup Ready trait. They’d also need closely held technical data to update licenses that keep the trait legal in big, important markets like China and the EU.
Meanwhile, the end of the Roundup Ready patent will very likely give farmers a chance to do something they haven’t for years: plant the seed they’ve harvested. Luke Ulrich is ready. “I don’t care how good Roundup Ready 2 is; if you tell me I can save back my own seed, I’m going to plant my own seed,” Ulrich says. The problem for guys like Ulrich will be finding seed that has just the Roundup Ready gene alone, one not stacked with other patented traits. After all, if he can’t find the seed in the first place, he can’t grow it.
NATURE PREDICTABLY DEFIANT
How To Evolve A Superweed
Around 1870, a tiny Chinese insect turned up in farm fields around the city of San Jose, California. The creature would inject a syringe-like mouthpart into a plant and suck up the juices. It grew a plate-like shield that covered its entire body, out from which new insects would eventually emerge. The San Jose scale, as the insect came to be known, spread quickly through the United States and Canada, leaving ravaged orchards in its path. “There is perhaps no insect capable of causing greater damage to fruit interests in the United States, or perhaps the world, than the San Jose scale,” one entomologist declared.
Farmers searched for pesticides that could stop the San Jose scale. In the nineteenth century, they had a fearsome arsenal of poisons for killing weeds and insects. In the ancient empire of Sumer 4500 years ago, farmers put sulfur on their crops. The Romans used pitch and grease. Europeans learned to extract chemicals from plants. In 1807, chemists isolated pyrethrum from an Armenian daisy. To stop the San Jose scale, they tried whale oil. They tried kerosene and water. One of the best treatments they found was a mix of lime and sulfur. After a few weeks of spraying, the San Jose scale would disappear.
By 1900, however, the lime-sulfur cure was failing. Here and there, the San Jose scale returned to its former abundance. An entomologist named A. L. Melander found some San Jose scales living happily under a thick crust of dried lime-sulfur spray. So Melander embarked on a widespread experiment, testing out sulfur-lime on orchards across Washington State. He found that in some orchards, the pesticide wiped out the insects completely. In other orchards, as many as 13 percent of the scales survived. But those surviving scales could be killed off with kerosene.
Melander wondered why some populations of scales were becoming able to resist pesticides. Could the sulfur-lime spray trigger a change in their biology, the way manual labor triggers the growth of callouses on our hands? Melander doubted it. After all, ten generations of scales lived and died between sprayings. The resistance must be hereditary, he reasoned. He sometimes would find families of scales still alive amidst a crowd of dead insects.
This was a radical idea at the time. Biologists had only recently rediscovered Mendel’s laws of heredity. They talked about genes being passed down from one generation to the next, yet they didn’t know what genes were made of yet. But they did recognize that genes could spontaneously change–mutate–and in so doing alter traits permanently. “The sporadic occurrence of naturally immune individual scales finds a parallel in recent work on heredity of protozoa and bacteria,” Melander declared in 1914. “Mutants less or not susceptible to certain toxins have been repeatedly found in cultures and from them have been produced immune strains.”
In the short term, Melander suggested that farmers switch to fuel oil to fight scales, but he warned that they would eventually become resistant to fuel oil as well. In fact, the best way to keep the scales from becoming entirely resistant to pesticides was, paradoxically, to do a bad job of applying those herbicides. By allowing some susceptible scales to survive, farmers would keep their susceptible genes in the scale population. “Thus we may make the strange assertion that the more faulty the spraying this year the easier it will be to control the scale the next year,” Melander predicted.
Melander is one of evolution’s unsung heroes. Nearly a century ago, he demonstrated how natural selection could happen very quickly, and have a direct effect on people’s lives. Unfortunately, his great insight appears to have fallen on deaf ears. For the next few decades, farmers and chemists gave little thought to the possibility that insects or weeds would evolve resistance. Gradually, however, it became clear that every time they tried a new chemical, the target of that chemical began to evolve resistance to it. And the more they sprayed a chemical, the faster the resistance evolved.
As chemicals failed, chemists searched for new ones. The search got harder and harder. Making the task more challenging was the fact that these chemicals can be extremely nasty not just to weeds or pests, but to beneficial insects, birds, and even humans. But in 1970 a scientist at the Monsanto Corporation found a chemical that seemed to hold out great hope–glyphosate, also known as Roundup. Glyphosate kills weeds by blocking the construction of amino acids that are essential for the survival of plants. It attacks enzymes that only plants use, with the result that it’s harmless to people, insects, and other animals. And unlike other herbicides that wind up in ground water, glyphosate stays where it’s sprayed, degrading within weeks.
Roundup went on the market in 1974. In 1986, scientists engineered plants to be resistant to glyphosate, by inserting genes from bacteria that could produce amino acids even after a plant was sprayed with herbicides. In the 1990s Monsanto and other companies began to sell glyphosate-resistant corn, cotton, sugar beets, and many other crops. The crops proved hugely popular. Instead of applying a lot of different herbicides, farmers found they could hit their fields with a modest amount of glyphosate alone, which wiped out weeds without harming their crops. Studies indicate that farmers who used the transgenic crops used fewer herbicides than those who grew regular plants —77% less in Mexico, for example—while getting a significantly higher yield from their fields.
For a while, it seemed as if glyphosate would avoid Melander’s iron rule. Monsanto scientists ran tests that showed no evidence of resistance. Glyphosate seemed to strike at such an essential part of plant biology that plants could not evolve a defense. But after glyphosate-resistant crops had a few years to grow, farmers began to notice horseweed and morning glory and other weeds encroaching once more into their fields. Farmers in Georgia had to cut down fields of cotton rather than harvest them because of infestations of Palmer amaranth.
In today’s New York Times William Neuman and Andrew Pollack have a sobering article about just how bad things have gotten for farmers who use glyphosate over the past decade. They begin with the story of one Tennessee farmer, Eddie Anderson: “For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. But not this year. On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, told Neuman and Pollack.”
Neuman and Pollack left the story of this fast-forward evolution at that–but it’s actually a fascinating tale. A century ago, Melander could only study natural selection by observing which insects lived and died. Today, scientists can pop the lid off the genetic toolbox that insects and weeds use to resist chemicals that were once thought irresistible. Stephen Powles, a scientist at the University of Western Australia, has been studying the evolution of Roundup resistance for some years now, and he’s co-authored a new review that surveys what we know now about it.
What’s striking is how many different ways weeds have found to overcome the chemical. Scientists had thought that Roundup was invincible in part because the enzyme it attacks is pretty much the same in all plants. That uniformity suggests that plants can’t tolerate mutations to it; mutations must change its shape so that it doesn’t work and the plant dies. But it turns out that many populations of ryegrass and goosegrass have independently stumbled across one mutation that can change a single amino acid in the enzyme. The plant can still survive with this altered enzyme. And Roundup has a hard time attacking it thanks to its different shape.
Another way weeds fight off Roundup is through sheer numbers. Earlier this year an international team of scientists reported their discovery of how Palmer amaranth resists glyphosate. The plants make the ordinary, vulnerable form of the enzyme. But the scientists discovered that they have many extra copies of the gene for the enzyme–up to 160 extra copies, in fact. All those extra genes make extra copies of the enzyme. While the glyphosate may knock out some of the enzymes in the Palmer amaranth, the plants make so many more enzymes that they can go on growing.
It’s also possible for weeds to evolve resistance to Roundup without any change whatsoever to the enzyme Roundup attacks. When farmers spread Roundup on plants, the chemical spreads swiftly from the leaves all the way down the stems to the roots. This fast, widespread movement helps make Roundup so deadly. It turns out that some species of horseweed and other weeds have evolved a way to block the spread. Scientists don’t yet know how they manage this. It’s possible that cells in the leaves suck the Roundup in through their membranes and then tuck it away in safe little chambers where they can’t cause harm. However they do it, the weeds can continue to grow with their normal enzymes.
What makes the evolution of Roundup resistance all the more dangerous is how it doesn’t respect species barriers. Scientists have found evidence that once one species evolves resistance, it can pass on those resistance genes to other species. They just interbreed, producing hybrids that can then breed with the vulnerable parent species. In a recent interview, Powles predicted that the Roundup resistance catastophe is just going to get worse, not just in the United States but everywhere where Roundup is used intensively. It’s not a hopeless situation, however. Farmers may be able to slow the spread of resistance by mixing up the kinds of seeds they use, even by fostering vulernable weeds in the way Melander suggested. Resistance is a manageable problem–once you recognize the problem and its evolutionary roots.
Monsanto seed biz role revealed
by Christopher Leonard / December 14, 2009
Confidential contracts detailing Monsanto Co.’s business practices reveal how the world’s biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops, an Associated Press investigation has found. With Monsanto’s patented genes being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products, according to a review of several Monsanto licensing agreements and dozens of interviews with seed industry participants, agriculture and legal experts. Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family’s dinner table. That’s because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto’s patented genes.
Monsanto’s methods are spelled out in a series of confidential commercial licensing agreements obtained by the AP. The contracts, as long as 30 pages, include basic terms for the selling of engineered crops resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, along with shorter supplementary agreements that address new Monsanto traits or other contract amendments. The company has used the agreements to spread its technology – giving some 200 smaller companies the right to insert Monsanto’s genes in their separate strains of corn and soybean plants. But, the AP found, access to Monsanto’s genes comes at a cost, and with plenty of strings attached. For example, one contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto’s genes and the genes of any of its competitors, unless Monsanto gives prior written permission – giving Monsanto the ability to effectively lock out competitors from inserting their patented traits into the vast share of U.S. crops that already contain Monsanto’s genes.
Monsanto’s business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. The practices also are at the heart of civil antitrust suits filed against Monsanto by its competitors, including a 2004 suit filed by Syngenta AG that was settled with an agreement and ongoing litigation filed this summer by DuPont in response to a Monsanto lawsuit. The suburban St. Louis-based agricultural giant said it’s done nothing wrong. “We do not believe there is any merit to allegations about our licensing agreement or the terms within,” said Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles. He said he couldn’t comment on many specific provisions of the agreements because they are confidential and the subject of ongoing litigation. “Our approach to licensing (with) many companies is pro-competitive and has enabled literally hundreds of seed companies, including all of our major direct competitors, to offer thousands of new seed products to farmers,” he said.
The benefit of Monsanto’s technology for farmers has been undeniable, but some of its major competitors and smaller seed firms claim the company is using strong-arm tactics to further its control. “We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable,” said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades. “The upshot of that is that it’s tightening Monsanto’s control, and makes it possible for them to increase their prices long term. And we’ve seen this happening the last five years, and the end is not in sight.”
At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world’s food supply. Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to wheat bread and cookies. The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010, said company spokeswoman Kelli Powers. Monsanto’s broad use of licensing agreements has made its biotech traits among the most widely and rapidly adopted technologies in farming history. These days, when farmers buy bags of seed with obscure brand names like AgVenture or M-Pride Genetics, they are paying for Monsanto’s licensed products.
One of the numerous provisions in the licensing agreements is a ban on mixing genes – or “stacking” in industry lingo – that enhance Monsanto’s power. One contract provision likely helped Monsanto buy 24 independent seed companies throughout the Farm Belt over the last few years: that corn seed agreement says that if a smaller company changes ownership, its inventory with Monsanto’s traits “shall be destroyed immediately.” Quarles, however, said Sunday he wasn’t familiar with that older agreement, obtained by the AP, but said, “as I understand it,” Monsanto includes provisions in all its contracts that allow companies to sell out their inventory if ownership changes, rather than force the firms to destroy the inventory immediately.
Another provision from contracts earlier this decade- regarding rebates – also help explain Monsanto’s rapid growth as it rolled out new products. One contract gave an independent seed company deep discounts if the company ensured that Monsanto’s products would make up 70 percent of its total corn seed inventory. In its 2004 lawsuit, Syngenta called the discounts part of Monsanto’s “scorched earth campaign” to keep Syngenta’s new traits out of the market. Quarles said the discounts were used to entice seed companies to carry Monsanto products when the technology was new and farmers hadn’t yet used it. Now that the products are widespread, Monsanto has discontinued the discounts, he said.
The Monsanto contracts reviewed by the AP prohibit seed companies from discussing terms, and Monsanto has the right to cancel deals and wipe out the inventory of a business if the confidentiality clauses are violated. Thomas Terral, chief executive officer of Terral Seed in Louisiana, said he recently rejected a Monsanto contract because it put too many restrictions on his business. But Terral refused to provide the unsigned contract to AP or even discuss its contents because he was afraid Monsanto would retaliate and cancel the rest of his agreements. “I would be so tied up in what I was able to do that basically I would have no value to anybody else,” he said. “The only person I would have value to is Monsanto, and I would continue to pay them millions in fees.”
Independent seed company owners could drop their contracts with Monsanto and return to selling conventional seed, but they say it could be financially ruinous. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene has become the industry standard over the last decade, and small companies fear losing customers if they drop it. It also can take years of breeding and investment to mix Monsanto’s genes into a seed company’s product line, so dropping the genes can be costly. Monsanto acknowledged that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers are seeking documents and interviewing company employees about its marketing practices. The DOJ wouldn’t comment.
A spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the office is examining possible antitrust violations. Additionally, two sources familiar with an investigation in Texas said state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office is considering the same issues. States have the authority to enforce federal antitrust law, and attorneys general are often involved in such cases. Monsanto chairman and chief executive officer Hugh Grant told investment analysts during a conference call this fall that the price increases are justified by the productivity boost farmers get from the company’s seeds. Farmers and seed company owners agree that Monsanto’s technology has boosted yields and profits, saving farmers time they once spent weeding and money they once spent on pesticides. But recent price hikes have still been tough to swallow on the farm. “It’s just like I got hit with bad weather and got a poor yield. It just means I’ve got less in the bottom line,” said Markus Reinke, a corn and soybean farmer near Concordia, Mo. who took over his family’s farm in 1965. “They can charge because they can do it, and get away with it. And us farmers just complain, and shake our heads and go along with it.”
Any Justice Department case against Monsanto could break new ground in balancing a company’s right to control its patented products while protecting competitors’ right to free and open competition, said Kevin Arquit, former director of the Federal Trade Commission competition bureau and now a antitrust attorney with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York. “These are very interesting issues, and not just for the companies, but for the Justice Department,” Arquit said. “They’re in an area where there is uncertainty in the law and there are consumer welfare implications and government policy implications for whatever the result is.” Other seed companies have followed Monsanto’s lead by including restrictive clauses in their licensing agreements, but their products only penetrate smaller segments of the U.S. seed market. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene, on the other hand, is in such a wide array of crops that its licensing agreements can have a massive effect on the rules of the marketplace.
Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys. First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world’s first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical. The company soon released other genetically altered crops, such as corn plants that produced a natural pesticide to ward off bugs. While Monsanto had blockbuster products, it didn’t yet have a big foothold in a seed industry made up of hundreds of companies that supplied farmers. That’s where the legal innovations came in, as Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.
Back in the 1970s, public universities developed new traits for corn and soybean seeds that made them grow hardy and resist pests. Small seed companies got the traits cheaply and could blend them to breed superior crops without restriction. But the agreements give Monsanto control over mixing multiple biotech traits into crops. The restrictions even apply to taxpayer-funded researchers. Roger Boerma, a research professor at the University of Georgia, is developing specialized strains of soybeans that grow well in southeastern states, but his current research is tangled up in such restrictions from Monsanto and its competitors. “It’s made one level of our life incredibly challenging and difficult,” Boerma said.
The rules also can restrict research. Boerma halted research on a line of new soybean plants that contain a trait from a Monsanto competitor when he learned that the trait was ineffective unless it could be mixed with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene. Boerma said he hasn’t considered asking Monsanto’s permission to mix its traits with the competitor’s trait. “I think the co-mingling of their trait technology with another company’s trait technology would likely be a serious problem for them,” he said. Quarles pointed out that Monsanto has signed agreements with several companies allowing them to stack their traits with Monsanto’s. After Syngenta settled its lawsuit, for example, the companies struck a broad cross-licensing accord. At the same time, Monsanto’s patent rights give it the authority to say how independent companies use its traits, Quarles said. “Please also keep in mind that, as the (intellectual property developer), it is our right to determine who will obtain rights to our technology and for what purpose,” he said.
Monsanto’s provision requiring companies to destroy seeds containing Monsanto’s traits if a competitor buys them prohibited DuPont or other big firms from bidding against Monsanto when it snapped up two dozen smaller seed companies over the last five years, said David Boies, a lawyer representing DuPont who previously was a prosecutor on the federal antitrust case against Microsoft Corp. Competitive bids from companies like DuPont could have made it far more expensive for Monsanto to bring the smaller companies into its fold. But that contract provision prevented bidding wars, according to DuPont. “If the independent seed company is losing their license and has to destroy their seeds, they’re not going to have anything, in effect, to sell,” Boies said. “It requires them to destroy things – destroy things they paid for – if they go competitive. That’s exactly the kind of restriction on competitive choice that the antitrust laws outlaw.” Some independent seed company owners say they feel increasingly pinched as Monsanto cements its leadership in the industry. “They have the capital, they have the resources, they own lots of companies, and buying more. We’re small town, they’re Wall Street,” said Bill Cook, co-owner of M-Pride Genetics seed company in Garden City, Mo., who also declined to discuss or provide the agreements. “It’s very difficult to compete in this environment against companies like Monsanto.”
MEANWHILE : HEALTH CONCERNS
Study Proves Three Monsanto Corn Varieties’ Noxiousness to the Organism
by Le Monde with AFP / translation : Leslie Thatcher / 11.12.2009
A study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences demonstrates the toxicity of three genetically modified corn varieties from the American seed company Monsanto, the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (Criigen, based in Caen), which participated in that study, announced Friday, December 11. “For the first time in the world, we’ve proven that GMO are neither sufficiently healthy nor proper to be commercialized. [...] Each time, for all three GMOs, the kidneys and liver, which are the main organs that react to a chemical food poisoning, had problems,” indicated Gilles-Eric Séralini, an expert member of the Commission for Biotechnology Reevaluation, created by the EU in 2008.
Caen and Rouen University researchers, as well as Criigen researchers, based their analyses on the data supplied by Monsanto to health authorities to obtain the green light for commercialization, but they draw different conclusions after new statistical calculations. According to Professor Séralini, the health authorities based themselves on a reading of the conclusions Monsanto has presented and not on conclusions drawn from the totality of the data. The researchers were able to obtain complete documentation following a legal decision. “Monsanto’s tests, effected over 90 days, are obviously not of sufficient duration to be able to say whether chronic illnesses are caused. That’s why we ask for tests over a period of at least two years,” explained one researcher. Consequently, the scientists demand a “firm prohibition” on the importation and cultivation of these GMOs. These three GMOs (MON810, MON863 and NK603) “are approved for human and animal consumption in the EU and especially the United States,” notes Professor Séralini. “MON810 is the only one of the three grown in certain EU countries (especially Spain); the others are imported,” he adds. A meeting of EU ministers over MON810 and NK603 is scheduled Monday.
FROM THE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT YOU AGENT ORANGE (SEE ALSO : DEFOLIANTS)
Agent Orange: Background on Monsanto’s Involvement
We have great respect for the U.S. soldiers sent to war and all those affected by the Vietnam conflict. All sides share in the pain from this difficult time in our history. One of the legacies of that war is Agent Orange, where questions remain nearly 40 years later. By way of background, the U.S. military used Agent Orange from 1961 to 1971 to save the lives of U.S. and allied soldiers by defoliating dense vegetation in the Vietnamese jungles and therefore reducing the chances of ambush.
As the war began and intensified, the U.S. government used its authority under the Defense Production Act to issue contracts to seven major chemical companies to obtain Agent Orange and other herbicides for use by U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam. The government specified the chemical composition of Agent Orange and when, where and how the material was to be used in the field, including application rates. Agent Orange was one of 15 herbicides used for military purposes during the Vietnam War and the most commonly applied. It received its name because of the orange band around containers of the material. The manufacturing companies included Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Dow Chemical Company, Hercules, Inc., T-H Agricultural & Nutrition Company, Thompson Chemicals Corporation, Uniroyal Inc. and Monsanto Company, which at the time was a chemical manufacturer. Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange from 1965 to 1969.
Agent Orange was a 50-50 mix of two common herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which had been used domestically since the late 1940s without incident by U.S. farmers, railroads and others. Since the Vietnam War, both scientific and public concern has arisen over the dioxin compound 2,3,7,8-TCDD, a byproduct of the manufacturing process used to produce 2,4,5-T (which, again, was one of the herbicides in Agent Orange.) TCDD was present in trace amounts. Research on the issue of Agent Orange has gone on for decades and continues today.
There have been a number of lawsuits. Monsanto and the six other chemical manufacturers reached agreement with U.S. veterans in a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in 1984 that involved millions of U.S. veterans and their families. There was not a finding of fault. It was settled by the parties rather than undertake a lengthy and complicated trial. The $180 million in funds that were part of the agreement were distributed according to a plan developed in part by U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein. There have been other lawsuits since that time. In March of 2009, a key legal question was settled in the United States when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand unanimous lower court rulings disallowing recovery from lawsuits on the Agent Orange issue. The Supreme Court agreed that the companies were not responsible for the implications of military use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, because the manufacturers were government contractors, carrying out the instructions of government.
Monsanto is now primarily a seed and agricultural products company. We believe that the adverse consequences alleged to have arisen out of the Vietnam War, including the use of Agent Orange, should be resolved by the governments that were involved.
The Congressional Research Service explored this issue in detail in May of 2009. It can be read at http://www.vn-agentorange.org/RL34761_200905.pdf
Clarence Thomas, Former Monsanto Lawyer, Still Hearing Case
In Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case which could have an enormous effect on the future of the American food industry. This is Monsanto’s third appeal of the case, and if they win a favorable ruling from the high court, a deregulated Monsanto may find itself in position to corner the markets of numerous U.S. crops, and to litigate conventional farmers into oblivion. Here’s where it gets a bit dicier. Two Supreme Court justices have what appear to be direct conflicts of interest. Charles Breyer, the judge who ruled in the original decision of 2007 which is being appealed, is Stephen Breyer’s brother, who apparently views this as a conflict of interest and has recused himself. Meanwhile from the years 1976 – 1979, Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto. Thomas apparently does not see this as a conflict of interest and has not recused himself.
The lawsuit was filed by plantiffs which include the Center for Food Safety, the National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Dakota Resources Council and other farm, environmental and consumer groups and individual farmers. The original decision : “The federal district court in California issued its opinion on the deregulation of “Roundup Ready” alfalfa pursuant to the Plant Protection Act on February 13, 2007. Upon receiving Monsanto’s petition for deregulation of the alfalfa seed, APHIS conducted an Environmental Assessment and received over 500 comments in opposition to the deregulation. The opposition’s primary concern was the potential of contamination. APHIS, however, made a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) and approved the deregulation petition, thereby allowing the seed to be sold without USDA oversight. Geertson Seed Farms, joined by a number of growers and associations, filed claims under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as the Endangered Species Act and Plant Protection Act. In regards to NEPA, they argued that the agency should have prepared an EIS for the deregulation.”
Addressing only the NEPA claims, the court agreed that APHIS should have conducted an EIS because of the significant environmental impact posed by deregulation of the alfalfa seed. A realistic potential for contamination existed, said the court, but the agency had not fully inquired into the extent of this potential. The court also determined that APHIS did not adequately examine the potential effects of Roundup Ready alfalfa on organic farming and the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds and that there were “substantial questions” raised by the deregulation petition that the agency should have addressed in an EIS. Concluding that the question of whether the introduction of the genetically engineered alfalfa and its potential to affect non-genetic alfalfa posed a significant environmental impact necessitated further study, the court found that APHIS’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the agency to prepare an EIS. The court later enjoined the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa from March 30, 2007, until completion of the EIS and reconsideration of the deregulation petition, except for those farmers who had already purchased the seed. In May of 2007, the court enjoined any future planting of the alfalfa. An order by the court in June, 2007 required disclosure of all Roundup Ready planting sites. Monsanto filed appeals in 2008 and 2009. In both instances, they were unsuccessful in having the original decision reversed, so they appealed to the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case.
Alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States, behind corn, soybeans, and wheat. South Dakota alfalfa farmer Pat Trask, one of the plaintiffs, said Monsanto’s biotech alfalfa would ruin his conventional alfalfa seed business because it was certain his 9,000 acres would be contaminated by the biotech genes. Alfalfa is very easily cross-pollinated by bees and by wind. The plant is also perennial, meaning GMO plants could live on for years. “The way this spreads so far and wide, it will eliminate the conventional alfalfa industry,” said Trask. “Monsanto will own the entire alfalfa industry.”
Monsanto has a policy of filing lawsuits or taking other legal actions against farmers who harvest crops that show the presence of the company’s patented gene technology. It has sued farmers even when they have tried to keep their own fields free from contamination by biotech plants on neighbouring farms. The case has implications beyond alfalfa crops. About eight hundred reviewed genetically engineered food applications were submitted to the USDA, yet no environmental impact statements were prepared. Even as this diary is being written, a federal judge in San Francisco is reviewing a similar case involving genetically modified sugar beets. The decision is expected this week and could halt planting and use of the gm sugar beets, which account for half of America’s sugar supply.
SEEDS AS DEBT : INDIA’S ‘SUICIDE BELT’
When Prince Charles claimed thousands of Indian farmers were killing themselves after using GM crops, he was branded a scaremonger. In fact, it’s worse than he feared.
by Andrew Malone / 3rd November 2008
The children were inconsolable. Mute with shock and fighting back tears, they huddled beside their mother as friends and neighbours prepared their father’s body for cremation on a blazing bonfire built on the cracked, barren fields near their home. As flames consumed the corpse, Ganjanan, 12, and Kalpana, 14, faced a grim future. While Shankara Mandaukar had hoped his son and daughter would have a better life under India’s economic boom, they now face working as slave labour for a few pence a day. Landless and homeless, they will be the lowest of the low. Shankara, respected farmer, loving husband and father, had taken his own life. Less than 24 hours earlier, facing the loss of his land due to debt, he drank a cupful of chemical insecticide. Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years’ earnings, he was in despair. He could see no way out. There were still marks in the dust where he had writhed in agony. Other villagers looked on – they knew from experience that any intervention was pointless – as he lay doubled up on the ground, crying out in pain and vomiting. Moaning, he crawled on to a bench outside his simple home 100 miles from Nagpur in central India. An hour later, he stopped making any noise. Then he stopped breathing. At 5pm on Sunday, the life of Shankara Mandaukar came to an end. As neighbours gathered to pray outside the family home, Nirmala Mandaukar, 50, told how she rushed back from the fields to find her husband dead. ‘He was a loving and caring man,’ she said, weeping quietly. ‘But he couldn’t take any more. The mental anguish was too much. We have lost everything.’
Shankara’s crop had failed – twice. Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India’s ancient story. But the death of this respected farmer has been blamed on something far more modern and sinister: genetically modified crops. Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional seeds to planting GM seeds instead. Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiralling debts – and no income. So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000 farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops. The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and the time had come to end its unstoppable march. Speaking by video link to a conference in the Indian capital, Delhi, he infuriated bio-tech leaders and some politicians by condemning ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’. Ranged against the Prince are powerful GM lobbyists and prominent politicians, who claim that genetically modified crops have transformed Indian agriculture, providing greater yields than ever before. The rest of the world, they insist, should embrace ‘the future’ and follow suit.
So who is telling the truth? To find out, I travelled to the ‘suicide belt’ in Maharashtra state. What I found was deeply disturbing – and has profound implications for countries, including Britain, debating whether to allow the planting of seeds manipulated by scientists to circumvent the laws of nature. For official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture do indeed confirm that in a huge humanitarian crisis, more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves here each month. Simple, rural people, they are dying slow, agonising deaths. Most swallow insecticide – a pricey substance they were promised they would not need when they were coerced into growing expensive GM crops. It seems that many are massively in debt to local money-lenders, having over-borrowed to purchase GM seed. Pro-GM experts claim that it is rural poverty, alcoholism, drought and ‘agrarian distress’ that is the real reason for the horrific toll. But, as I discovered during a four-day journey through the epicentre of the disaster, that is not the full story.
In one small village I visited, 18 farmers had committed suicide after being sucked into GM debts. In some cases, women have taken over farms from their dead husbands – only to kill themselves as well. Latta Ramesh, 38, drank insecticide after her crops failed – two years after her husband disappeared when the GM debts became too much. She left her ten-year-old son, Rashan, in the care of relatives. ‘He cries when he thinks of his mother,’ said the dead woman’s aunt, sitting listlessly in shade near the fields. Village after village, families told how they had fallen into debt after being persuaded to buy GM seeds instead of traditional cotton seeds. The price difference is staggering: £10 for 100 grams of GM seed, compared with less than £10 for 1,000 times more traditional seeds.
But GM salesmen and government officials had promised farmers that these were ‘magic seeds’ – with better crops that would be free from parasites and insects. Indeed, in a bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, traditional varieties were banned from many government seed banks. The authorities had a vested interest in promoting this new biotechnology. Desperate to escape the grinding poverty of the post-independence years, the Indian government had agreed to allow new bio-tech giants, such as the U.S. market-leader Monsanto, to sell their new seed creations. In return for allowing western companies access to the second most populated country in the world, with more than one billion people, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans in the Eighties and Nineties, helping to launch an economic revolution.
But while cities such as Mumbai and Delhi have boomed, the farmers’ lives have slid back into the dark ages. Though areas of India planted with GM seeds have doubled in two years – up to 17 million acres – many famers have found there is a terrible price to be paid. Far from being ‘magic seeds’, GM pest-proof ‘breeds’ of cotton have been devastated by bollworms, a voracious parasite. Nor were the farmers told that these seeds require double the amount of water. This has proved a matter of life and death. With rains failing for the past two years, many GM crops have simply withered and died, leaving the farmers with crippling debts and no means of paying them off. Having taken loans from traditional money lenders at extortionate rates, hundreds of thousands of small farmers have faced losing their land as the expensive seeds fail, while those who could struggle on faced a fresh crisis. When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year.
But with GM seeds they cannot do this. That’s because GM seeds contain so- called ‘terminator technology’, meaning that they have been genetically modified so that the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their own. As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds each year at the same punitive prices. For some, that means the difference between life and death. Take the case of Suresh Bhalasa, another farmer who was cremated this week, leaving a wife and two children. As night fell after the ceremony, and neighbours squatted outside while sacred cows were brought in from the fields, his family had no doubt that their troubles stemmed from the moment they were encouraged to buy BT Cotton, a geneticallymodified plant created by Monsanto. ‘We are ruined now,’ said the dead man’s 38-year-old wife. ‘We bought 100 grams of BT Cotton. Our crop failed twice. My husband had become depressed. He went out to his field, lay down in the cotton and swallowed insecticide.’
Villagers bundled him into a rickshaw and headed to hospital along rutted farm roads. ‘He cried out that he had taken the insecticide and he was sorry,’ she said, as her family and neighbours crowded into her home to pay their respects. ‘He was dead by the time they got to hospital.’ Asked if the dead man was a ‘drunkard’ or suffered from other ‘social problems’, as alleged by pro-GM officials, the quiet, dignified gathering erupted in anger. ‘No! No!’ one of the dead man’s brothers exclaimed. ‘Suresh was a good man. He sent his children to school and paid his taxes. ‘He was strangled by these magic seeds. They sell us the seeds, saying they will not need expensive pesticides but they do. We have to buy the same seeds from the same company every year. It is killing us. Please tell the world what is happening here.’ Monsanto has admitted that soaring debt was a ‘factor in this tragedy’. But pointing out that cotton production had doubled in the past seven years, a spokesman added that there are other reasons for the recent crisis, such as ‘untimely rain’ or drought, and pointed out that suicides have always been part of rural Indian life. Officials also point to surveys saying the majority of Indian farmers want GM seeds – no doubt encouraged to do so by aggressive marketing tactics.
During the course of my inquiries in Maharastra, I encountered three ‘independent’ surveyors scouring villages for information about suicides. They insisted that GM seeds were only 50 per cent more expensive – and then later admitted the difference was 1,000 per cent. (A Monsanto spokesman later insisted their seed is ‘only double’ the price of ‘official’ non-GM seed – but admitted that the difference can be vast if cheaper traditional seeds are sold by ‘unscrupulous’ merchants, who often also sell ‘fake’ GM seeds which are prone to disease.) With rumours of imminent government compensation to stem the wave of deaths, many farmers said they were desperate for any form of assistance. ‘We just want to escape from our problems,’ one said. ‘We just want help to stop any more of us dying.’ Prince Charles is so distressed by the plight of the suicide farmers that he is setting up a charity, the Bhumi Vardaan Foundation, to help those affected and promote organic Indian crops instead of GM.
India’s farmers are also starting to fight back. As well as taking GM seed distributors hostage and staging mass protests, one state government is taking legal action against Monsanto for the exorbitant costs of GM seeds. This came too late for Shankara Mandauker, who was 80,000 rupees (about £1,000) in debt when he took his own life. ‘I told him that we can survive,’ his widow said, her children still by her side as darkness fell. ‘I told him we could find a way out. He just said it was better to die.’ But the debt does not die with her husband: unless she can find a way of paying it off, she will not be able to afford the children’s schooling. They will lose their land, joining the hordes seen begging in their thousands by the roadside throughout this vast, chaotic country. Cruelly, it’s the young who are suffering most from the ‘GM Genocide’ – the very generation supposed to be lifted out of a life of hardship and misery by these ‘magic seeds’. Here in the suicide belt of India, the cost of the genetically modified future is murderously high.
anti-Monsanto crop circle made by farmers in the Philippines – photo by Melvyn Calderon
TRUST + ANTI-TRUST
Monsanto: The parable of the sower / The Economist / 11.2009
Few companies excite such extreme emotions as Monsanto. To its critics, the agricultural giant is a corporate hybrid of Victor Frankenstein and Ebenezer Scrooge, using science to create foods that threaten the health of both people and the planet, and intellectual-property laws to squeeze every last penny out of the world’s poor. The list of Monsanto’s sins dates back to when (with other firms) it produced Agent Orange, a herbicide notorious for its use by American forces in Vietnam. Recently “Food Inc”, a documentary film, lambasted the company. To its admirers, the innovations in seeds pioneered by Monsanto are the world’s best hope of tackling a looming global food crisis. Hugh Grant, the firm’s boss since 2003, says that without the sort of technological breakthroughs Monsanto has achieved the world has no chance of doubling agricultural output by 2050 while using less land and water, as many believe it must. Mr Grant, of course, would say that. But he is not alone. Bill Gates sees Monsanto’s innovations as essential to the agricultural revolution in Africa to which his charitable foundation is committed. Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, is also a fan.
Monsanto has come a long way from its roots in pharmaceuticals and chemicals (in which capacity it made Agent Orange). The original company was formed in 1901 to make saccharine. In 2000 it merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn, a drugmaker. Two years later the group’s agricultural activities were spun off into a new Monsanto. At that time the company was best known for Roundup, a herbicide popular with farmers. Roundup is still a leading brand, but margins have been eroded by competition from Chinese producers of other forms of glyphosate weedkiller. Roundup’s share of Monsanto’s revenue is shrinking towards 10%. There is talk that it might be sold. “It is no sacred cow. We look at it every year,” says Mr Grant. Today most of Monsanto’s $11.7 billion of annual sales come from seeds, increasingly of genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, varieties, and from licensing genetic traits. Indeed, it is now best known, for better or worse, for applying biotechnology to seed production, winning a string of the sort of patents on living organisms that became legal in America only after a Supreme Court decision in 1980. In July it gave its GM seed a new master brand: Genuity, a name that evokes “being genuine, authentic and original”, according to a company spokesman. It will denote a “family of innovative products that will enable farmers to do what they do best, even better.”
In the 13 years since GM seed was first farmed commercially, agriculture—and Monsanto with it—has become increasingly central to several of the world’s most pressing policy debates, says Mr Grant, a Scot who joined the company in 1981. Nowadays he spends a good deal of his time taking part in those debates, which range from concerns about higher prices and shortages of supply to the use of land for growing biofuels rather than food, climate change and water. Arguments over water, thinks Mr Grant, “will dwarf the discussion that has taken place so far over food.” Monsanto is also getting caught up in the debate over intellectual-property rights in food and their implications for antitrust policy, on which Barack Obama’s administration sounds less friendly than that of George Bush. It has already marked agriculture for attention. How successful Monsanto and rival makers of GM seed, such as DuPont and Syngenta, are in winning round a sceptical public and policymakers will play a big part in determining how lucrative their innovations prove to be. In public attitudes to GM food, Mr Grant believes “there’s been progress everywhere compared with 15 years ago.” Still, Europe remains “slow, a real slouch. European farmers have been denied the right to choose.” Although the European Union is slowly becoming open to imports of GM food, it is still largely opposed to growing the stuff. Monsanto has still to complete a test of any GM seed in Britain because protesters have destroyed its experiments. In Latin America, by contrast, Argentina and Brazil are both growing GM corn (maize) and soyabeans. In some ways, rising awareness of the food crisis has helped people to see “GM as something with potential benefits other than just boosting the profits of Big Food,” says Mr Grant—to Monsanto’s benefit. Well, maybe.
Monsanto’s innovations fall into two categories. The first is breeding, which seedmakers have been doing with increasing sophistication for decades. Monsanto is able to accelerate the process of selective breeding through better mapping of a seed’s genetic qualities and its suitability to grow in a particular place. At Monsanto’s research laboratory in St Louis, the company’s home city, farmers on one of the many tours that are part of its marketing efforts are clearly fascinated by a piece of technology known as the corn chipper. A machine picks up an individual seed, rotates it to the right position, then chips off a sample, which has its genetic material analysed. (Getting the seed in the right position is the hardest step, because each one has a different shape and it is crucial that the chipper does not damage the embryo and thus stop the seed from growing properly.) The likely attributes of the plant that would grow from each seed are predicted from its DNA, the most promising seeds are planted, and the process is repeated with the seeds that those plants go on to produce. The tour guide refers to the operation as “CSI: St Louis”, although testing now goes on all year, at centres around the world. In the past three years this technology has helped speed up dramatically Monsanto’s ability to identify and grow the most productive seed for any given location. “It is the mother and father of all dating agencies: we can analyse every single seed we harvest, do a health check, guess what its grandchildren will be like, send it anywhere in the world,” says Mr Grant. The second category of innovation, in which Monsanto is becoming increasingly adventurous, is genetic modification: identifying genetic traits with particular qualities and transplanting those traits into seeds to improve their performance. In essence, the goal is to pack as much technology into a seed as possible.
The biggest breakthroughs so far have been in weed and bug control. Perhaps the most common feature of Monsanto’s range of seeds is that they are Roundup Ready, meaning that they are guaranteed to survive spraying with Roundup that will take out any surrounding weeds. Some plants have been bioengineered to deter pests from eating their leaves and roots, which reduces or even eliminates the need for insecticides. Farmers on their tours cannot fail to miss the display cases in which a healthy Monsanto plant grows next to a seriously ailing traditional specimen of the same variety. Monsanto has just launched two new varieties of seed that have been engineered to be far more productive: Genuity SmartStax corn, which company trials suggest can increase yields by 5-10%; and Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soyabeans, which in trials have shown yields 7-11% higher than the first generation of Roundup Ready soyabeans. Over the past couple of decades, soyabean yields have risen at an annual rate of barely 1%. In around 2012 or 2013 Monsanto expects to launch a soyabean whose processing will result in fewer transfats. It will also offer an “omega-3 soyabean”, genetically enhanced to give consumers the many proven health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Until now, omega-3 has been harvested from fish and so, in Mr Grant’s words, “products with omega-3 in them taste a bit fishy.” Fish derive omega-3 from algae, so Monsanto has done likewise, extracting the relevant genetic material from the algae and putting it into soyabeans. Now, he says, without the fishy taste, omega-3 will go well in yogurts, health bars and so forth.
The company is also aiming to engineer seed to use nitrogen more efficiently—and hence to require less fertiliser. This would reduce farmers’ exposure to the price of oil, from which fertilisers are made, and the damage done when nitrogen leaches into the water supply. In about three years’ time Monsanto expects to launch its first “drought tolerant” products. It is examining several ways of making plants more tolerant of drought. One is to improve the roots’ take-up of water. Another is to reduce water loss through the leaves. A third is to alter plants’ reaction to lack of water. When stressed, a plant shuts down growth in order to conserve what it has. They often over-react, and use a lot of energy when they restart. Genetic modification can help it interpret water conditions more accurately and avoid unnecessary stops and starts. Because water shortages are predicted for many parts of the world, Monsanto expects these drought-tolerant plants to be a huge commercial success. The first of them will be corn, intended for a dry strip of America running from northern Texas to the Dakotas. Drought-tolerant technology has also prompted Monsanto to start focusing on dry-land wheat. Wheat acres have declined in recent years, contributing to shortages. In July the company paid $45m for WestBred, a wheat-seed firm.
Trust and antitrust
Acquisitions have been a key part of Monsanto’s strategy, giving it access to new seed markets. In 2005, it began to apply biotech to vegetables after buying Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable-seed company, for $1.4 billion. Since it was spun off, Monsanto has made more than 20 acquisitions (as well as several disposals). Those purchases are one reason why it was singled out as an appropriate target for the antitrust authorities in a paper published in October by the American Antitrust Institute, an independent competition watchdog. The paper laments the “impaired state of competition in transgenic seed”—which it blames on Monsanto above all. The company’s acquisitions have been crucial in creating the horizontal and vertical integration that support its platforms in cotton, corn and soyabeans. Last year its share of the markets for GM corn and soyabeans was about 65% and that for GM cotton about 45%. The institute’s paper argues that, thanks to its dominance, Monsanto is actually harming innovation in seed. Monsanto had to make concessions to win the antitrust authorities’ approval for two of its biggest purchases, of DeKalb in 1998 and of Delta and Pine Land in 2007. The next generation in the greenhouse True, for the past 13 years Monsanto has been licensing its technology broadly, to hundreds of firms, including some of its main competitors. This, the paper concedes, has ensured that Monsanto has not ended up in “control of large, totally closed platforms in transgenic seed that could be challenged only by the unlikely emergence of rival platforms.” However, it cites Monsanto’s reputation for defending its intellectual property fiercely through the courts as another reason why the antitrust authorities should take a look at the firm.
Monsanto’s terms of business require farmers to buy fresh seed every year. Its new Violator Exclusion Policy denies farmers who break the terms of its licences access to all its technology for ever. This summer it achieved its latest success in enforcing its stern line when it won a case against some Canadian farmers who had held on to seed. Agricultural markets have been mentioned as an area under review by officials in the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. The DoJ is expected to make Google its main target, but it will be no surprise if Monsanto comes a close second. Already, the DoJ is looking into complaints by DuPont, perhaps Monsanto’s fiercest rival. In May Monsanto sued DuPont, alleging that Pioneer, DuPont’s seed arm, had broken licensing terms for herbicide-resistant technology in corn and soyabeans. After an ugly war of words, DuPont countersued and complained to the DoJ. “We are in a hyper-competitive business. Farmers have no shortage of choice,” insists the unapologetic Mr Grant. “Our goal is to be competitive every spring at the farmer’s table. A farmer may be willing to abdicate the decision on what chemicals to use, but not on what seed to plant. We aim to win one field at a time, one spring at a time.” Enforcing licences is crucial to that strategy. Just as in the drug industry, innovation is expensive: Monsanto has a research and development budget of nearly $1 billion a year, and reckons it costs $100m to bring a new GM seed to market. If there is to be innovation, the firm insists, intellectual property must be protected. However, Monsanto is using different language—and a different approach from that of big drugmakers — when it comes to dealing with the millions of poor people in Africa. Mr Grant says that he is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the pharmaceutical industry in holding back on making valuable innovations available to the developing world. He believes that “in a perfect world, on the same day you launch [a drought-resistant seed] in Kansas, you would launch it similarly in Nairobi”—although in practice Africa and other poor places that are short of water will have to wait a while longer.
Over the past three years, the firm has started to play a leading role in efforts collectively described as an attempt to create a “green revolution in Africa”. Mr Grant talks enthusiastically about his friendship with Norman Borlaug, the driving force behind the Green Revolution, first in Mexico, then in Asia, in the second half of the past century, which is generally reckoned to have saved at least 1 billion lives. Shortly before his death this year, aged 95, Borlaug reportedly expressed regret that he would not live to see the “gene revolution”. In white corn, a staple in Africa and Mexico, Monsanto has donated all its intellectual property, seed and know-how for developing drought-tolerant genes to Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a public-private partnership that has received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the foundation of Howard Buffett, an Illinois farmer (and son of Warren Buffett). The five countries to benefit are Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Mr Grant expects to launch drought-tolerant corn in Africa within two or three years of the launch in America. The company is also working with Millennium Villages, an anti-poverty project led by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University.
Big Pharma versus Big Farma
In contrast to the anti-retroviral drugs that pharmaceutical companies sell in Africa, this product will generate no royalties for Monsanto, says Mr Grant. “The buzzword is the ‘democratisation of technology’ and we have learnt from Big Pharma the dangers of being too slow,” says Mr Grant. The fact that seeds suited to one place do not necessarily grow well elsewhere greatly reduces the risk of parallel imports that affected the drugmakers. They feared that drugs given away in Africa would be shipped back to rich countries, undermining their business there. That said, he does not believe that Monsanto could or should be expected to solve this problem on its own. “We studied what Borlaug did, which was work with local NGOs, tapped research institutes, brought disparate groups together. The new piece today is getting big companies involved, which hopefully means we can get this done much faster than Borlaug did.” Mr Grant nonetheless regards this approach as “good business”, not least because the developing world will be a huge source of future growth for the firm. Monsanto sells more GM cotton in India than in America. Already, most of the countries where GM seed is sown are emerging ones. Around 90% of the world’s 12m farmers with at least a hectare planted with GM seed are smallholders in developing countries. America has 250,000-300,000 active farmers; India has 15m cotton farmers alone, several million of whom Monsanto says it has reached already. This reinforces the firm’s fundamental message, that it is a driving force for higher farm productivity—and that higher productivity, not a return to the methods of the past, is likely to be the true source of agricultural sustainability. In America, GM seed has already brought about huge increases in productivity, says Mr Grant. He has no time for the “Malthusian thing about running out of food. This is eminently solvable.” He sees huge potential in merely raising yields in the rest of the world to levels already achieved in America thanks to better farming practices, Roundup and improved seed productivity. American farmers average about 160 bushels (of 56lb, or 25.5kg) of corn per acre per year, against 60 in Brazil and 27 in sub-Saharan Africa (22 excluding South Africa). Moreover, even in America there is the potential to double yields again. Already, farmers in Iowa are producing as many as 200 bushels an acre. Mr Grant believes that 300 bushels are achievable by 2030. “We have just scratched the surface,” he says, pointing out that after the first GM crops came on the market in 1996, it took ten years for 1 billion acres to be planted. But the second billion took only another three years. “We are where transistors were in the 1970s.”