How Big Business is Killing Small Farmers

Monsanto is feeding something, all right: its coffers. One costly lawsuit at a time.

Apr 26, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Have I mentioned my deep, dark, intense loathing for Monsanto lately?

Monsanto in a nutshell: One of the world’s biggest industrial agriculture corporations, with a focus on biotechnology, and a wide-reaching, many-tentacled approach to business that makes any self-respecting capitalist jealous. You might know the company for the herbicide glyphosphate (found in Roundup) and its extensive research into genetically modified crops (currently 49 percent of the GMO seed in the US is Monsanto and the company has a lock on seed production), but some of us know it for more than that.

The company has established itself a nasty little reputation for being extremely aggressive when it comes to filing suits, and it has deep pockets to back them. It’s also lobbying central for biotechnology, promoting the use of genetically modified seeds, bovine growth hormones, and other products some people are opposed to for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. And it’s turned to snapping up patents for agricultural products left and right to establish dominance in the industry.

There’s a sense, looking at Monsanto, of living in an actual realfax dystopian novel, because what the company seems to be aiming for is utter control of all methods of food production not just in the US, but around the world. It’s actually not a bad move strategically if you are an evil biotech company, because once you control the source of the food, you control the populace. And with the company growing each year, it’s able to effectively steamroller over naysayers who express concern.

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Taste the rainbow

It started with the establishment of a stranglehold on the US agriculture industry. Buy Monsanto seeds, Monsanto chemicals, and other products if you want high yields and a productive farm. Eventually, you’re locked in; and don’t let your crops cross-pollinate, or you’ll be slapped with a lawsuit.

The company’s currently assaulting small organic farmers across the Midwest who are victims of cross-pollination from Monsanto’s supposedly sterile cultivars, driving them out of business because they can’t afford the legal fees.

People and communities suing Monsanto may be slapped with gag orders and harassment, like company representatives sneaking onto their farms to steal samples. Many organic farmers don’t want Monsanto products on their farm and strive to keep them off, but it’s extremely difficult when pollen goes where it will. They’ve argued that Monsanto should be compensating them for the contamination, not the other way around, but courts tend to rule on the side of Monsanto and its attorneys.

In the developing world, Monsanto has “helpfully” swooped in to teach people the ways of industrial agriculture, locking them into costly methods of production that also deplete the local environment. Trapped in a Monsanto mouse wheel, farmers are forced to get deeper and deeper in debt with each growing season; and this is what people refer to as the green revolution.

In Argentina, Sofia Gatica is going up against the company, charging that it’s polluted her home village with glyphosphate spraying of soybeans and other crops. She managed to enact some major changes, but not without being subject to death threats and intimidation; the risks of going up against big agriculture are very real.

And now Monsanto has turned to the lucrative home gardening market, snapping up patents on a number of popular seeds, like Early Girl tomatoes. Watch out, container gardeners.

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Breach of patent?

When the branding doesn’t change, gardeners are often unaware that they’re buying Monsanto products, and even if they would normally make an attempt to avoid them, they don’t connect the dots. These acquisitions are savvy strategy for the company, which can sneak into the home and small farm seed market through the back door, setting up for future legal action.

If you sell vegetables at the farmers’ market, will you owe Monsanto? Can you save seeds? If your crops cross-pollinate, are you liable? These are things organic farmers worry about, and with good reason, given Monsanto’s track record.

“If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers,” the company’s website cheerily informs us. That doesn’t seem to be borne out in the company’s business practices at all, although it is adept when it comes to greenwashing itself for consumers; it wants people to know it cares about agriculture, the environment, and the Global South. Monsanto is feeding something, all right: its coffers. One costly lawsuit at a time.

Why should you care about this? Chances are high you’re exposed to Monsanto products in your garden, your food, or community. When the number of companies providing seeds dwindles and the available cultivars shrink, everyone loses; and our food supply becomes much less stable.

What happens when the company’s “Roundup Ready” crops contribute to herbicide resistance? Or when the crop of choice becomes prone to fungal diseases and no alternative cultivars of the same crop are readily available? These are questions we are already starting to face, and they illustrate the dangers of monoculture and relying on industrial agriculture to feed the world.

We need small farms, we need heirloom varietals, we need diversity in the food system, and not just for the foodie street cred.