'Gene Police' Raise Farmers Fears
Rick Weiss / Washington Post 3feb99
BRUNO, Saskatchewan - On a cold January morning in central Canada, Percy Schmeiser looks over his frozen fields. "Here's where all the trouble began," he says, pointing to here private investigators last year arrived uninvited and snipped samples of his crops for DNA tests.
Schmeiser, 68, has been farming these fertile acres all his life, growing canola for the valuable oil in its seeds. And as farmers have done for thousands of years, he has saved some seeds from each year's harvest to replant his fields the following season. Now, he says, "for doing what I've always done," he is being sued by agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. in a landmark "seed piracy" case. The outcome could influence how much control biotechnology companies will have over the world's food supply in the next millennium, and is highlighting a major source of friction as the genetic revolution spills into the world of agriculture.
Schmeiser is one of hundreds of farmers in the United States and Canada who stand accused by Monsanto of replanting the company's patented, gene-altered seeds in violation of a three-year-old company rule requiring that farmers buy the seeds fresh every year. He vehemently denies having bought Monsanto's seeds, saying pollen or seeds must have blown onto his farm, possibly from a neighbor's land. It's the company, Schmeiser says, that ought to be rebuked for its pattern of "harassment."
Besides sending Pinkerton detectives into farmers' fields, the company sponsors a toll-free "tip line" to help farmers blow the whistle on their neighbors and has placed radio ads broadcasting the names of noncompliant growers caught planting the company's genes. Critics say those tactics are fraying the social fabric that holds farming communities together.
"Farmers here are calling it a reign of terror," Schmeiser says. "Everyone's looking at each other and asking, 'Did my neighbor say something?' "
Cases like Schmeiser's are also raising alarms within organizations that deal with global food security. That's because three-quarters of the world's growers are subsistence farmers who rely on saved seed.
"This is a very alien and threatening concept to farmers in most of the world," said Hope Shand, research director of Rural Advancement Foundation International, an international farm advocacy group based in Pittsboro, N.C. "Our rural communities are being turned into corporate police states and farmers are being turned into criminals."
Monsanto representatives say the company must strictly enforce the "no replant" policy to recoup the millions of dollars spent developing the seeds and to continue providing even better seeds for farmers. Already, they say, the new varieties are improving farmers'
yields and profits and allowing them to abandon extremely toxic chemicals in favor of more environmentally friendly ones. A newer generation of engineered seeds, now under development, promises to produce food with enhanced nutritional value, providing a potential boon for the world's malnourished masses.
"This is part of the agricultural revolution, and any revolution is painful. But the technology is good technology," said Karen Marshall, a spokeswoman for Monsanto in St. Louis.
A visit to Monsanto's 210-acre biotechnology complex, 25 miles west of St. Louis, offers ample evidence of how difficult and expensive it is to develop new and useful varieties of gene-altered seeds.
It is the largest biotechnology research center in the world, featuring 250 separate laboratories, 100 room-sized plant growth chambers whose climates can be controlled from researchers' home computers if necessary, and two acres of greenhouses arrayed on the main building's enormous rooftop.
It was here that company scientists took a gene from a bacterium that produces an insect-killing toxin called "Bt" and transferred it to corn, cotton and other crops to make plants that exude their own insecticide. Here too, researchers gave crops a gene that allows them to survive Monsanto's flagship weed killer, Roundup, which normally kills
Monsanto estimates that it takes 10 years and about $300 million to create commercial products such as these. For every new kind of engineered seed that makes it to field trials, 10,000 have failed somewhere along the development pipeline, officials say. To recover this huge investment, the company has opted not to sell its engineered seeds in the traditional sense but to "lease" them, in effect, for one-time use only - and to go after anyone who breaks the rules.
Suing one's own customers "is a little touchy," Marshall conceded. But after going to so much trouble to build a better seed, "we don't want to give the technology away." It wasn't always this way. Until about a decade ago, crop and seed development in the United States and abroad was mostly a government business. The Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the nation's land grant colleges and local agricultural extension agents, developed, tested and distributed new varieties of seeds, asking nothing more of citizens than that they pay their taxes. Under that system, patents were infrequently pursued and rarely enforced. And seed saving and trading were commonplace.
That began to change in the 1980s when Congress passed legislation, including the Bayh-Dole Amendment, that encouraged federal agencies to cooperate more closely with the private sector. In agriculture, that meant private seed companies could profit handsomely by selling seeds that were developed in large part with taxpayer dollars. Today, a handful of American and European agricultural companies control a major portion of the world's certified food seed supply.
Monsanto is the king of them all. Its gene alterations can be found in hundreds of crop varieties sold under license by many seed companies. And the total acreage devoted to gene-altered crops has increased astronomically since the first varieties were approved in 1996. This year, about half of the 72-million-acre U.S. soybean harvest is expected to be genetically engineered to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup. More than half of the 13 million acres of U.S. cotton will be engineered as well, as will be about 25 percent of the nation's 80 million acres of corn, either for Roundup resistance or to exude Bt.
"Farmers are going bonkers for these crops," said William Kosinski, a Monsanto biotechnology educator. "They've been very well received." Although there are lingering concerns that in the long run genetically engineered crops could end up hurting the environment, the company argues that they could actually help. In one small study, the reduced use of pesticides with engineered plants appears to have resulted in increased survival of beneficial insects, which eat insect pests and serve as food for struggling songbird populations.
"Cotton growers are saying that the thing they're noticing is they're starting to hear birds again," said Hugh Grant, co-president of Monsanto's agricultural division.
Tim Seifert and Ted Megginson are farm neighbors in Auburn, Ill., about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis. Between the two of them they farm about 4,400 acres,
mostly soybeans and corn, and they will vouch for the quality of Monsanto's genes.
For the past two years, all 1,200 acres of Seifert's soybean fields have been planted with Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready brand, and about half his other 1,200 acres are now devoted to the company's Bt-exuding "YieldGard" corn. Megginson started using Roundup Ready soybean seed last year, and both say they have obtained good yields while using fewer toxic chemicals.
"It's made me a better farmer," Seifert said, warming his hands in Megginson's small, barn-side office. Most important, Seifert estimates he saved $5 to $6 an acre last year in reduced labor and pesticide costs.
But when conversation turns to the restrictions that come along with Monsanto's seed, Seifert and Megginson confess to being less than enthused. One irritation is the "Technology Use Agreement," which not only demands that farmers not save seed but also gives Monsanto the right to come onto their land and take plant samples for three years after the seeds are last purchased.
"Farmers don't like to sign anything," Seifert said, especially anything that gives up their rights to stop trespassers. "I have to admit, I balked a little."
But what has really irritated farmers has been Monsanto's aggressive efforts to track down seed savers, such as the company's widely advertised toll-free "tip line." "Nobody likes to think that your neighbor is getting away with something while you are doing it on the uppity up, but we're all neighbors, too," Seifert said. In heated discussions at local farm meetings, he said, "the majority of farmers felt like they wouldn't squeal on each other."
Megginson and Seifert were also taken aback by the radio ads that Monsanto aired during the fall soybean harvest in which the company named farmers who had been caught saving seed - ads the company calls "educational" and others call "intimidating."
One of those named farmers is David Chaney, who farms about 500 acres near Reed, Ky. Chaney admitted to replanting some of Monsanto's engineered soybean seed and trading some to other farmers in the area.
He settled with Monsanto, paying the company $35,000 and signing an agreement that forbids him from criticizing the company. "I wish I could tell you the whole story," he said. "Legally they are right. But morally, that's something else altogether. Mostly I wish I'd bought their stock instead of their seed."
Perhaps most bothersome, he said, is knowing that someone he knows probably turned him in. "I hope I never know who," he said. It's possible that no one turned Chaney in, because another of Monsanto's methods for catching seed pirates is to conduct random DNA tests on plants growing in the fields of farmers who have bought its seed in previous years.
The company has hired full-time Pinkerton investigators and, north of the border, retired Canadian Mounted Police, to deal with the growing work load - a total now of more than 525 cases, about half of which have been settled. The company won't reveal details, but many of the settlements have been in the range of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and a settlement in the millions is expected soon, said Lisa Safarian, Monsanto's intellectual property protection manager.
The company has decided that the risk of alienating some farmers is more than offset by the benefit of being able to promise "a level playing field" for the vast majority of honest customers, Safarian said. Besides, she said, the money is going to a good cause: a Monsanto-created scholarship fund to help the children of farmers go to college.
Rounding Up Evidence
But what about Schmeiser, who never bought engineered seeds from Monsanto, and never signed a grower agreement? According to some experts, his predicament suggests that Monsanto's policies could affect many more people than just its customers. It was a Friday in July when he got a call from a local Monsanto representative. "We have heard a rumor that you are growing Roundup Ready Canola on your farm," the man said.
"I thought, 'Oh boy!'," Schmeiser said.
Schmeiser stands as straight as a silo and is not easily intimidated. He was the mayor of Bruno for 17 years, and for five years was a member of the Saskatchewan legislative assembly. "I've seen a lot of politics," he says. "But I've never seen a situation to create hard feelings and divide people as what I'm seeing now."
The man from Monsanto asked Schmeiser for permission to test his plants. Schmeiser refused, so the company sampled some plants on a public right-of-way near his fields. Some of those apparently tested positive for Monsanto's gene, because a judge subsequently provided a court order allowing the company to take plants from Schmeiser's property.
The problem, Schmeiser says, is there's a lot of plants in the area with Monsanto's gene in them. Roundup Ready pollen from other farmers' fields is blowing everywhere in the wind, he says, and he's seen big brown clouds of canola seed blowing off loaded trucks as they speed down the road around harvest time - spilling more than enough to incriminate an innocent farmer.
Back near his house, Schmeiser points to a wild canola plant poking out of the snow near the base of a telephone pole. "I sprayed Roundup around these poles twice last summer to control weeds," he says. How is it, he asks, that this canola plant survived?
Inside his modest, tidy home, he pulls out agricultural articles documenting many instances of Roundup Ready canola cross-pollinating with normal canola. Monsanto has a problem, says Terry J. Zekreski, Schmeiser's attorney in Saskatoon: It's trying to own a piece of Mother Nature that naturally spreads itself around. Ray Mowling, a vice president for Monsanto Canada in Mississauga, agrees that some cross pollination occurs, and acknowledges the awkwardness of prosecuting farmers who may be inadvertently growing Monsanto seed through cross-pollination or via innocent trades with patent-violating neighbors. Nonetheless, he said, the company considers Schmeiser's "a critical case" to win if it hopes to protect its patent rights beyond its immediate circle of paying customers.
Killing a Cash Cow
Some say Monsanto could have done things differently. Berlin-based AgrEvo, for example, also sells engineered canola in Canada yet has chosen not to place restrictions on seed use. Its plan is to make money on its herbicide, Liberty, rather than on its Liberty-tolerant seeds. The more seeds sold, blown or given away, the better.
Monsanto, however, does not have that option. The U.S. patent on Roundup is on the verge of expiring, which means cheap generics will soon kill the company's 20-year-old cash cow. Monsanto will have to profit from Roundup-tolerant seeds, rather than from Roundup itself.
Representatives of other U.S. seed companies have taken a few potshots at Monsanto for how it has handled its war on piracy. Privately, though, they express relief that patent protection is Monsanto's problem, not theirs.
In a few years Monsanto may have a technical solution to its problem. The company is buying the commercial rights to a package of genes, developed in part by the federal government, that has come to be known as "Terminator." When inserted into seeds, the genes ensure that the resulting plants will never produce seeds of their own. While the system could solve forever the seed piracy problem, it has already come under heavy fire from farmers and international agronomic groups because of its potential to starve subsistence farmers of the renewable seed they need. In any case, Terminator technology is not expected to be available commercially until 2005.
In Monsanto's view, there is no crisis today:
Farmers can simply decide whether its seeds are worth the legal baggage they carry. And indeed, many farmers have already voted "yes" with their wallets.
"We're not doing this [farming] for a hobby. We're looking for net dollars," said Megginson, the Illinois farmer who has begun using Monsanto's genes. "They're not holding a gun to my head to make me buy their seeds."
Then again, that didn't help Schmeiser. He and others say they can't help but wonder whether high-tech agriculture - and the escalating war over seed patent rights - may ultimately rob farmers of the one thing they have historically cherished the most: The freedom to work their land as they wish.
"Every year I get catalogues from the seed salesmen, and more and more varieties have the Roundup Ready gene even though I don't need it," said Vincent Moye, a farmer in Reinbeck, Iowa. "The government's looking at Microsoft too hard. This is a bigger monopoly. We're all gonna be serfs on our own land."
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