by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
from FlickR Website
The Square Deal is a fixture in Eagleville, a place where farmers
and townspeople can go for lightbulbs, greeting cards, hunting gear,
ice cream, aspirin, and dozens of other small items without having
to drive to a big-box store in Bethany, the county seat, 15 miles
down Interstate 35.
The stranger came up to the counter and asked for him by name.
As Rinehart would recall, the man began
verbally attacking him, saying he had proof that Rinehart had
planted Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) soybeans
in violation of the company’s patent. Better come clean and settle
with Monsanto, Rinehart says the man told him—or face the
He was angry that somebody could just barge into the store and embarrass him in front of everyone.
Rinehart says he told the intruder,
When the stranger persisted, Rinehart showed him the door. On the way out the man kept making threats.
Rinehart says he can’t remember the exact words, but they were to the effect of:
Scenes like this are playing out in many parts of rural America these days as Monsanto goes after farmers, farmers’ co-ops, seed dealers—anyone it suspects may have infringed its patents of genetically modified seeds.
As interviews and reams of court documents reveal, 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.
Farmers say that some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors. Others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records.
Farmers call them the “seed police” and use words
such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics.
Wallis said that, while the vast majority of farmers and seed dealers follow the licensing agreements, “a tiny fraction” do not, and that Monsanto is obligated to those who do abide by its rules to enforce its patent rights on those who “reap the benefits of the technology without paying for its use.”
He said only a small number of cases
ever go to trial.
But farmers who buy Monsanto’s seeds can’t even do that.
The Control of Nature
For nearly all of its history the United States Patent and Trademark Office had refused to grant patents on seeds, viewing them as life-forms with too many variables to be patented.
But in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, turned seeds into widgets, laying the groundwork for a handful of corporations to begin taking control of the world’s food supply. In its decision, the court extended patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” In this case, the organism wasn’t even a seed.
Rather, it was a Pseudomonas bacterium developed by a General Electric scientist to clean up oil spills.
But the precedent was set, and Monsanto
took advantage of it. Since the 1980s, Monsanto has become the world
leader in genetic modification of seeds and has won 674
biotechnology patents, more than any other company, according to
U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
The seeds look identical; only a
laboratory analysis can show the difference. Even if a farmer
doesn’t buy G.M. seeds and doesn’t want them on his land, it’s a
safe bet he’ll get a visit from Monsanto’s seed police if crops
grown from G.M. seeds are discovered in his fields.
Yet in a little more than a decade, the company has sought to shed its polluted past and morph into something much different and more far-reaching—an “agricultural company” dedicated to making the world “a better place for future generations.”
Still, more than one Web log claims to
see similarities between Monsanto and the fictional company
“U-North” in the movie Michael Clayton, an agribusiness giant
accused in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit of selling an herbicide
that causes cancer.
So far, the company has produced G.M. seeds for soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton. Many more products have been developed or are in the pipeline, including seeds for sugar beets and alfalfa.
The company is also seeking to extend its reach into milk production by marketing an artificial growth hormone for cows that increases their output, and it is taking aggressive steps to put those who don’t want to use growth hormone at a commercial disadvantage.
Even as the company is pushing its G.M. agenda, Monsanto is buying up conventional-seed companies.
In 2005, Monsanto paid $1.4 billion for Seminis, which controlled 40 percent of the U.S. market for lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetable and fruit seeds.
Two weeks later it announced the acquisition of the country’s third-largest cottonseed company, Emergent Genetics, for $300 million. It’s estimated that Monsanto seeds now account for 90 percent of the U.S. production of soybeans, which are used in food products beyond counting.
acquisitions have fueled explosive growth, transforming the St.
Louis–based corporation into the largest seed company in the world.
One of L. Paul Bremer’s last acts as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority was an order stipulating that,
Monsanto has said that it has no interest in
doing business in Iraq, but should the company change its mind, the
American-style law is in place.
Many farmers believe that G.M. seeds
increase crop yields and save money. Another reason for their
attraction is convenience. By using Roundup Ready soybean seeds, a
farmer can spend less time tending to his fields. With Monsanto
seeds, a farmer plants his crop, then treats it later with Roundup
to kill weeds. That takes the place of labor-intensive weed control
The company’s complaint made it sound as if Monsanto had Rinehart dead to rights:
Faced with a federal lawsuit, Rinehart had to hire a lawyer.
Monsanto eventually realized that “Investigator Jeffery Moore” had targeted the wrong man, and dropped the suit. Rinehart later learned that the company had been secretly investigating farmers in his area.
Rinehart never heard from Monsanto again: no letter of apology, no public concession that the company had made a terrible mistake, no offer to pay his attorney’s fees.
Gary Rinehart is actually one of Monsanto’s luckier targets.
Ever since commercial introduction of
its G.M. seeds, in 1996, Monsanto has launched thousands of
investigations and filed lawsuits against hundreds of farmers and
seed dealers. In a 2007 report, the Center for Food Safety, in
Washington, D.C., documented 112 such lawsuits, in 27 states.
Freese says he has been told of many cases in which Monsanto investigators showed up at a farmer’s house or confronted him in his fields, claiming he had violated the technology agreement and demanding to see his records.
According to Freese, investigators will say,
Investigators will sometimes show a farmer a photo of himself coming out of a store, to let him know he is being followed. Lawyers who have represented farmers sued by Monsanto say that intimidating actions like these are commonplace.
Most give in and
pay Monsanto some amount in damages; those who resist face the full
force of Monsanto’s legal wrath.
The town has a grocery store, a bank, a
bar, a nursing home, a funeral parlor, and a few other small
businesses. There are no stoplights, but the town doesn’t need any.
The little traffic it has comes from trucks on their way to and from
the grain elevator on the edge of town. The elevator is owned by a
local co-op, the Pilot Grove Cooperative Elevator, which buys
soybeans and corn from farmers in the fall, then ships out the grain
over the winter. The co-op has seven full-time employees and four
There is no indication as to what
sparked the probe, but Monsanto periodically investigates farmers in
soybean-growing regions such as this one in central Missouri. The
company has a staff devoted to enforcing patents and litigating
against farmers. To gather leads, the company maintains an 800
number and encourages farmers to inform on other farmers they think
may be engaging in “seed piracy.”
It was a McDowell investigator who erroneously fingered Gary Rinehart.
In Pilot Grove, at least 11 McDowell investigators have worked the case, and Monsanto makes no bones about the extent of this effort:
Not long after investigators showed up in Pilot Grove, Monsanto subpoenaed the co-op’s records concerning seed and herbicide purchases and seed-cleaning operations. The co-op provided more than 800 pages of documents pertaining to dozens of farmers. Monsanto sued two farmers and negotiated settlements with more than 25 others it accused of seed piracy.
But Monsanto’s legal assault had only
begun. Although the co-op had provided voluminous records, Monsanto
then sued it in federal court for patent infringement. Monsanto
contended that by cleaning seeds - a service which it had provided
for decades - the co-op was inducing farmers to violate Monsanto’s
patents. In effect, Monsanto wanted the co-op to police its own
Pilot Grove’s lawyer, Steven H. Schwartz, described Monsanto in a court filing as pursuing a,
Even after Pilot Grove turned over thousands more pages of sales
records going back five years, and covering virtually every one of
its farmer customers, Monsanto wanted more—the right to inspect the
co-op’s hard drives. When the co-op offered to provide an electronic
version of any record, Monsanto demanded hands-on access to Pilot
Grove’s in-house computers.
After a judge denied that request, Monsanto expanded the scope of the pre-trial investigation by seeking to quadruple the number of depositions.
With Pilot Grove still holding out for a trial, Monsanto now subpoenaed the records of more than 100 of the co-op’s customers.
In a “You are Commanded … ” notice, the farmers
were ordered to gather up five years of invoices, receipts, and all
other papers relating to their soybean and herbicide purchases, and
to have the documents delivered to a law office in St. Louis.
Monsanto gave them two weeks to comply.
Whatever the outcome, the case shows why Monsanto is so detested in farm country, even by those who buy its products.
But it’s one that Monsanto manages to
get away with, because increasingly it’s the dominant vendor in
Chemicals? What Chemicals?
Given Monsanto’s current dominance in
the field of bioengineering, it’s worth looking at the company’s own
DNA. The future of the company may lie in seeds, but the seeds of
the company lie in chemicals. Communities around the world are still
reaping the environmental consequences of Monsanto’s origins.
He took $1,500 of his savings, borrowed
another $3,500, and set up shop in a dingy warehouse near the St.
Louis waterfront. With borrowed equipment and secondhand machines,
he began producing saccharin for the U.S. market. He called the
company the Monsanto Chemical Works, Monsanto being his wife’s
The young company faced other
challenges. Questions arose about the safety of saccharin, and the
U.S. Department of Agriculture even tried to ban it. Fortunately for
Queeny, he wasn’t up against opponents as aggressive and litigious
as the Monsanto of today. His persistence and the loyalty of one
steady customer kept the company afloat. That steady customer was a
new company in Georgia named Coca-Cola.
It was Edgar - shrewd, daring, and intuitive (“He can see around the next corner,” his secretary once said) - who built Monsanto into a global powerhouse.
Under Edgar Queeny and his successors, Monsanto extended its reach into a phenomenal number of products:
Its safety glass protects the U.S.
Constitution and the Mona Lisa. Its synthetic fibers are the basis
The next year, Monsanto scientists hit gold: they became the first to genetically modify a plant cell.
Over the next few years, scientists working mainly in the company’s vast new Life Sciences Research Center, 25 miles west of St. Louis, developed one genetically modified product after another—cotton, soybeans, corn, canola. From the start, G.M. seeds were controversial with the public as well as with some farmers and European consumers. Monsanto has sought to portray G.M. seeds as a panacea, a way to alleviate poverty and feed the hungry.
Robert Shapiro, Monsanto’s president during the 1990s, once called G.M. seeds,
By the late 1990s, Monsanto, having rebranded itself into a “life sciences” company, had spun off its chemical and fibers operations into a new company called Solutia.
After an additional reorganization, Monsanto re-incorporated in 2002
and officially declared itself an “agricultural company.”
As for the company’s early history, the
decades when it grew into an industrial powerhouse now held
potentially responsible for more than 50 Environmental Protection
Agency Superfund sites—none of that is mentioned. It’s as though the
original Monsanto, the company that long had the word “chemical” as
part of its name, never existed. One of the benefits of doing this,
as the company does not point out, was to channel the bulk of the
growing backlog of chemical lawsuits and liabilities onto Solutia,
keeping the Monsanto brand pure.
Monsanto no longer produces either, but the places where it did are still struggling with the aftermath, and probably always will be.
Even in small amounts, dioxin persists in the environment and accumulates in the body.
In 1997 the
International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the
Health Organization, classified the most powerful form of dioxin as
a substance that causes cancer in humans. In 2001 the U.S.
government listed the chemical as a “known human carcinogen.”
Residue from the explosion coated the
interior of the building and those inside with what workers
described as “a fine black powder.” Many felt their skin prickle and
were told to scrub down.
Doctors who examined four of the most seriously injured men detected a strong odor coming from them when they were all together in a closed room.
Court records indicate that 226 plant
workers became ill.
In the meantime, the Nitro plant continued to produce herbicides,
rubber products, and other chemicals. In the 1960s, the factory
manufactured Agent Orange, the powerful herbicide which the U.S.
military used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War, and which
later was the focus of lawsuits by veterans contending that they had
been harmed by exposure. As with Monsanto’s older herbicides, the
manufacturing of Agent Orange created dioxin as a by-product.
As Stuart Calwell, a lawyer who has represented both workers and residents in Nitro, put it,
In 1981 several former Nitro employees filed lawsuits in federal court, charging that Monsanto had knowingly exposed them to chemicals that caused long-term health problems, including cancer and heart disease. They alleged that Monsanto knew that many chemicals used at Nitro were potentially harmful, but had kept that information from them. On the eve of a trial, in 1988, Monsanto agreed to settle most of the cases by making a single lump payment of $1.5 million.
Monsanto also agreed to drop its claim
to collect $305,000 in court costs from six retired Monsanto workers
who had unsuccessfully charged in another lawsuit that Monsanto had
recklessly exposed them to dioxin. Monsanto had attached liens to
the retirees’ homes to guarantee collection of the debt.
A Monsanto spokesman said,
The suit will no doubt take years to play out.
Time is one thing that Monsanto always
has, and that the plaintiffs usually don’t.
But PCBs are toxic. A member of a family
of chemicals that mimic hormones, PCBs have been linked to damage in
the liver and in the neurological, immune, endocrine, and
reproductive systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of
the Department of Health and Human Services, now classify PCBs as
Excess PCBs were dumped in a nearby
open-pit landfill or allowed to flow off the property with storm
water. Some waste was poured directly into Snow Creek, which runs
alongside the plant and empties into a larger stream, Choccolocco
Creek. PCBs also turned up in private lawns after the company
invited Anniston residents to use soil from the plant for their
lawns, according to The Anniston Star.
The cleanup is under way, and it will
take years, but some doubt it will ever be completed—the job is
massive. To settle residents’ claims, Monsanto has also paid $550
million to 21,000 Anniston residents exposed to PCBs, but many of
them continue to live with PCBs in their bodies. Once PCB is
absorbed into human tissue, there it forever remains.
British authorities are struggling to
decide what to do with what they have now identified as among the
most contaminated places in Britain.
“No Cause for Public Alarm”
Let’s look just at the example of PCBs.
Afterward, navy officials informed Monsanto that they wouldn’t be buying the product.
Ten years later, a biologist conducting studies for Monsanto in streams near the Anniston plant got quick results when he submerged his test fish.
As he reported to Monsanto, according to The Washington Post,
An internal memo entitled “confidential—f.y.i. and destroy” from Monsanto official Paul B. Hodges reviewed steps under way to limit disclosure of the information.
One element of the strategy was to get public officials to fight Monsanto’s battle:
Despite Monsanto’s efforts, the information did get out, but the company was able to blunt its impact.
Monsanto’s Anniston plant manager “convinced” a reporter for The Anniston Star that there was really nothing to worry about, and an internal memo from Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis summarized the story that subsequently appeared in the newspaper:
In truth, there was enormous cause for public alarm. But that harm was done by the “Original Monsanto Company,” not “Today’s Monsanto Company” (the words and the distinction are Monsanto’s).
The Monsanto of today says that it can
be trusted—that its biotech crops are “as wholesome, nutritious and
safe as conventional crops,” and that milk from cows injected with
its artificial growth hormone is the same as, and as safe as, milk
from any other cow.
The Milk Wars
The dairy has gone “to the ultimate end of the earth for cow comfort,” says Kleinpeter, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Baton Rouge.
He says visitors marvel at what he does:
Monsanto would like to change the way Jeff Kleinpeter and his family do business. Specifically, Monsanto doesn’t like the label on Kleinpeter Dairy’s milk cartons:
To consumers, that means the milk comes
from cows that were not given artificial bovine growth hormone, a
supplement developed by Monsanto that can be injected into dairy
cows to increase their milk output.
But Jeff Kleinpeter—like millions of consumers—wants no part of rBGH.
Whatever its effect on humans, if any, Kleinpeter feels certain it’s harmful to cows because it speeds up their metabolism and increases the chances that they’ll contract a painful illness that can shorten their lives.
Kleinpeter Dairy has never used Monsanto’s artificial hormone, and the dairy requires other dairy farmers from whom it buys milk to attest that they don’t use it, either.
At the suggestion of a marketing consultant, the dairy began advertising its milk as coming from rBGH-free cows in 2005, and the label began appearing on Kleinpeter milk cartons and in company literature, including a new Web site of Kleinpeter products that proclaims,
The dairy’s sales soared. For Kleinpeter, it was simply a matter of
giving consumers more information about their product.
The company contends that advertising by Kleinpeter and other dairies touting their “no rBGH” milk reflects adversely on Monsanto’s product.
In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission in February 2007, Monsanto said that, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that there is no difference in the milk from cows treated with its product,
Monsanto called on the commission to investigate what it called the “deceptive advertising and labeling practices” of milk processors such as Kleinpeter, accusing them of misleading consumers,
As noted, Kleinpeter does not make any
such claims—he simply states that his milk comes from cows not
injected with rBGH.
After years of
scientific debate and public controversy, the F.D.A. in 1993
approved commercial use of rBST, basing its decision in part on
studies submitted by Monsanto. That decision allowed the company to
market the artificial hormone. The effect of the hormone is to
increase milk production, not exactly something the nation needed
then—or needs now. The U.S. was actually awash in milk, with the
government buying up the surplus to prevent a collapse in prices.
Veterinary drug reports note that,
What’s the effect on humans?
The F.D.A. has consistently said that the milk produced by cows that receive rBGH is the same as milk from cows that aren’t injected:
Nevertheless, some scientists are concerned by the lack of long-term studies to test the additive’s impact, especially on children.
A Wisconsin geneticist, William von Meyer, observed that when rBGH was approved the longest study on which the F.D.A.’s approval was based covered only a 90-day laboratory test with small animals.
However F.D.A. approval came about, Monsanto has long been wired into Washington.
Michael R. Taylor was a staff attorney and executive assistant to the F.D.A. commissioner before joining a law firm in Washington in 1981, where he worked to secure F.D.A. approval of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone before returning to the F.D.A. as deputy commissioner in 1991.
Dr. Michael A. Friedman, formerly the F.D.A.’s deputy commissioner for operations, joined Monsanto in 1999 as a senior vice president. Linda J. Fisher was an assistant administrator at the E.P.A. when she left the agency in 1993. She became a vice president of Monsanto, from 1995 to 2000, only to return to the E.P.A. as deputy administrator the next year.
William D. Ruckelshaus, former E.P.A. administrator, and Mickey Kantor, former U.S. trade representative, each served on Monsanto’s board after leaving government. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney in Monsanto’s corporate-law department in the 1970s. He wrote the Supreme Court opinion in a crucial G.M.-seed patent-rights case in 2001 that benefited Monsanto and all G.M.-seed companies.
Donald Rumsfeld never served on
the board or held any office at Monsanto, but Monsanto must occupy a
soft spot in the heart of the former defense secretary. Rumsfeld was
chairman and C.E.O. of the pharmaceutical maker G.D. Searle & Co.
when Monsanto acquired Searle in 1985, after Searle had experienced
difficulty in finding a buyer. Rumsfeld’s stock and options in
Searle were valued at $12 million at the time of the sale.
Since BST is a natural hormone found in all cows, including those not injected with Monsanto’s artificial version, the F.D.A. argued that no dairy could claim that its milk is BST-free. The F.D.A. later issued guidelines allowing dairies to use labels saying their milk comes from “non-supplemented cows,” as long as the carton has a disclaimer saying that the artificial supplement does not in any way change the milk.
So the milk cartons from Kleinpeter Dairy, for example, carry a label on the front stating that the milk is from cows not treated with rBGH, and the rear panel says,
That’s not good enough for Monsanto.
The Next Battleground
But after reviewing Monsanto’s claims, the F.T.C.’s Division of Advertising Practices decided in August 2007 that a,
The agency found some instances where dairies had made “unfounded health and safety claims,” but these were mostly on Web sites, not on milk cartons.
And the F.T.C. determined that the
dairies Monsanto had singled out all carried disclaimers that the
F.D.A. had found no significant differences in milk from cows
treated with the artificial hormone.
The ban was to take effect February 1, 2008.
dairy products, which don’t involve rBGH, are soaring in popularity.
Supermarket chains such as Kroger, Publix, and Safeway are embracing
them. Some other companies have turned away from rBGH products,
including Starbucks, which has banned all milk products from cows
treated with rBGH. Although Monsanto once claimed that an estimated
30 percent of the nation’s dairy cows were injected with rBST, it’s
widely believed that today the number is much lower.
AFACT describes itself as a “producer organization” that decries “questionable labeling tactics and activism” by marketers who have convinced some consumers to “shy away from foods using new technology.”
AFACT reportedly uses the
same St. Louis public-relations firm, Osborn & Barr, employed by
Monsanto. An Osborn & Barr spokesman told The Kansas City Star that
the company was doing work for AFACT on a pro bono basis.
Jeff Kleinpeter knows about them,
Kleinpeter went online to a site called StopLabelingLies, which claims to,
There, sure enough, Kleinpeter and other dairies that
didn’t use Monsanto’s product were being accused of making
misleading claims to sell their milk.
As it turns out, the Web site counts among its contributors Steven Milloy, the “junk science” commentator for FoxNews.com and operator of junkscience.com, which claims to debunk “faulty scientific data and analysis.”
It may come as no surprise that earlier
in his career, Milloy, who calls himself the “junkman,” was a
registered lobbyist for Monsanto.