FEATURES: Of plants and patents

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Monsanto Canada Inc. will go to court on January 15 to settle a case with four farmers who allegedly illegally grew, harvested, and sold products developed from patented Monsanto seeds.

The McGill Tribune contacted the farmers involved, but none were willing to comment before they go to court.

The January hearing follows Monsanto’s December settlement with three Quebec farmers growing Roundup Ready canola without a license. The farmers agreed to pay $200 per acre.

Monsanto uses genetic engineering to produce the herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready, a line that includes seeds for regular and high-yield soybeans, canola, and high-yield corn. Monsanto also offers other lines of enhanced crops that provide insect protection, weed control, and higher yields. Currently, Monsanto holds between a 70 and 100 per cent market share of various genetically engineered crops.

Monsanto prosecutes farmers who use their patented products without a license. The company encourages people who suspect patent infringement to call a toll-free number to report their claims. In the instance of the Quebec farmers, Monsanto spokesperson Trish Jordan said that people in the area alerted Monsanto to the patent infringement.

“We were told by people in [the farmers’]area that they thought that these guys were growing Roundup Ready canola without a license,” says Jordan. “We checked their fields and it was Roundup Ready … They weren’t accused of it. They admitted that they knowingly planted seeds [without a license].”

But Monsanto’s field auditing techniques have come under criticism. The May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair included an account of Monsanto’s lawsuit against Gary Rinehart, the owner of a small country store in Eagleville, Missouri. Rinehart was charged by Monsanto with patent infringement-despite the fact that he neither farms nor deals with seeds-based on observations by investigator Jeffery Moore. After bringing Rinehart to court, Monsanto eventually realized Moore had accused the wrong person.

“Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country. They fan out into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants about farming activities,” Vanity Fair reported.

Jordan, however, insists that Monsanto’s tactics are legitimate.

“We do audit surveys every year and 90 per cent [of farmers] go through the audit and have no issue with it. Obviously people who are stealing the technology are going to be a little bit more difficult to work with, but the audit program is conducted completely within the law,” says Jordan. “We cannot enter anybody’s land without their permission. If we believe there is an expected violation we have to, number one, work with the grower to resolve that, and number two, have evidence that that is indeed the case.”

In addition, Jordan notes that the people who complete the audits aren’t Monsanto employees, but are rather just contracted for the job.

The threat of random audits prevents most farmers who legally buy Monsanto seeds from breaching contract guidelines, but they don’t always address farmers who acquire seeds illegally.

“When a grower is purchasing seeds illegally in the first place, we are not going to know about [it] unless somebody tells us,” says Jordan. “Usually it could be another farmer, it could be a neighbour, it could be the local retail outlet. In those situations sometimes we check them out, and there are no issues: the guy has a contract and he is doing everything perfectly legally. In other situations that’s not the case, and that was the case with these three [Quebec] growers. They had never purchased the technology properly in the first place and they had used the seed.”

Farmers who purchase Monsanto seeds must sign a contract agreeing that they will not use the purchased seeds for more than one growing season or save any seeds from the season’s crop (traditionally, farmers keep seeds from one crop to use for the next). Instead, farmers who are Monsanto customers must purchase new Monsanto seeds every year.

“Agronomically, it’s going to give you your best chance at productive crop if you purchase new seed every year … If you’re a grower that feels adamant about saving and reusing seeds we have no problem with it. You can save and reuse seed all you want, just don’t save and reuse the seed that has our technology in it,” says Jordan. She admits that not everyone will agree with the agronomic benefits of buying new seed.

“I think there is a lack of knowledge,” says Professor Jasminder Singh from McGill’s Department of Plant Science. “But I understand that in some cases there are some self-pollinated crops where the seeds can be grown the next year, and in those cases sometimes companies want the farmers to still buy seeds from them.”

In the case of the Quebec farmers, the battle with Monsanto is over. But for the farmers in Ontario, and others, the worst is yet to come.