RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farmers Held Hostage to Monstano Patents

If there was one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers,” says the Monsanto webpage banner, which then moves to slides of predictably positive images about the behemoth: Pioneer Seeds, 100 years old; Billions of hungry mouths to feed.

But, here in mid-Missouri, about 100 miles west of Monsanto headquarters, the one word would have to be “weeds.” Check out the thousands of acres of Roundup Ready soybeans to see what I mean. Like flimsy banners over the bold green soybean leaves are waves of scraggly, but triumphant, ragweed.

Here in farm country, ragweed and a dozen other weeds have become resistant to Roundup, the most powerful herbicide on earth. This because Monsanto’s genetically altered Roundup-Ready crops have been planted in every nook and cranny.

Genetically altered seeds, also called GMOs, transgenic, biotech or any number of confusing labels, are altered to resist the Roundup. And it works.

After an application, most of the weeds and grasses die. But the survivors of the onslaught are hearty warriors. They have become resistant to the herbicide, and their offspring are taking over. And if you went to northern Illinois, about 400 miles north of Monsanto headquarters, the word to explain what Monsanto is about would be “corn root borers.”

OK, that’s three words (you got me) but the point is that corn root borers are getting Illinois crops. They have become resistant to Monsanto’s genetically altered pesticidal corn.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, “entomologist Aaron Gassmann found that western corn rootworms were becoming resistant to the corn that was genetically changed by Monsanto to resist the pest.”

These two events will derail the great financial year corn and bean farmers expected thanks to the battle for commodities between ethanol/biodiesel companies, food processors and animal CAFOs and feedlots. The failed crops will also mean big payouts by taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, a USDA cost that has eclipsed the price of subsidies. Here’s the deal: Monsanto scientists have been shooting genes into ordinary seeds for more than a decade, and claiming that the new genetic combinations are patentable improvements. The insect-resistant anti-corn root borer trait, due to genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, has been on the market since 2003. So, in eight short years the corn rootworms have become resistant to it.

When the resistance became evident, Monsanto blamed farmers for planting too much of the magical seed. They recommended that farmers plant a “refuge” of a few plants per acre to bait the worms away from the Bt plants.

Somehow, the scientists didn’t figure that the worms trapped in the Bt plants would continue to evolve, even if their cousins in the refuge stayed the same.

Now the farmers are being told to rotate crops, use more powerful root-worm-icides before planting, or use a different type of -icide biotech, also patented by Monsanto. And, of course, to buy more crop insurance. Crop insurance will be the big buzz when the new farm bill is written in 2012.

So some farmers, the ones with plenty of insurance, can get by without caring if the seeds work … but what about Monsanto? What’s to prevent farmers from turning away from Monsanto and going back to the old, tried-and-true seed-saving ways of the past? If the new seeds have failed on their promises, farmers might ask, why buy them? The answer is: patents.

When Monsanto invents a new seed combination, shooting genes from bacteria or something in it, they make sure the new combination is patented. And, when farmers buy the patented seed, they agree not to infringe on the patent. It’s like a copyright on a song. If Dave Matthews records a Beatles song, for example, or one by Michael Jackson, without buying rights, he is infringing on the copyright.

Farmers harvesting their biotech crop in 2011 are forbidden from saving the seeds for 2012. If they tried it, they could be sued for patent infringement. And, who do you think would win that one? Old McDonald or Monsanto?

And let’s say they manage to get ahold of some unpatented seeds, perhaps from one of the tiny number of courageous hold-out companies that still exist. They can still be sued, if another field cross-pollinates with their own and the GMO seed is found. So farmers are held hostage by the patenting system and it doesn’t matter to Monsanto whether the seeds work or not. It’s like a perfect system.

If you think this only matters to commodity farmers, consider that the scientists at “life sciences” labs all over the globe are competing to genetically modify all kinds of crops, and the ones you eat, from apples to zucchinis.

A patent guarantees an income, perhaps millions of dollars, for the beleaguered universities and labs; plants are being modified to resist Roundup, so industry can spray a pasture and plant the seeds at the same time, and they are being modified to resist all kinds of bugs, “to feed a hungry world.”

So what’s the word that comes to mind when you think of “Monsanto?” Let’s try “confusion,” followed by “patents” and, then, “screwed ya.”

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. You can email her at

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2011

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