Settlement of Monsanto case against food co-op
2.EXTRACTS from: Investigation - Monsanto's Harvest of Fear
NOTE: Looks like the terrible publicity generated by going after this farm co-op (item 2) may have stopped Monsanto from completely going for the jugular.
EXTRACT: Monsanto next petitioned to make potential damages punitive - tripling the amount that Pilot Grove might have to pay if found guilty. After a judge denied that request, Monsanto expanded the scope of the pre-trial investigation by seeking to quadruple the number of depositions. "Monsanto is doing its best to make this case so expensive to defend that the Co-op will have no choice but to relent," Pilot Grove's lawyer said in a court filing. (item 2)
1.Monsanto, Missouri co-op reach settlement on seed use
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 2 2008
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- Monsanto Co. continued a string of victories over farmers it claimed saved seeds from the biotech giant to use in subsequent growing seasons -- a practice Monsanto has vigorously tried to squelch.
On Tuesday, Creve Coeur-based Monsanto announced the settlement of a two-year dispute involving alleged patent infringement by Pilot Grove Cooperative Elevator Inc. The case started in 2004 with an anonymous phone call to Monsanto and wound through federal court in St. Louis before being resolved.
Pilot Grove, based in a town of the same name about 100 miles east of Kansas City, acknowledged violating Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready seed technology and accepted responsibility for damages, according to Monsanto.
The Pilot Grove case sparked anger against what some farmers called Monsanto's "seed police," who ferret out cases of seed reuse and slap farmers with warnings or litigation. In Pilot Grove, Monsanto raised the stakes against what is called "seed piracy." Its lawsuit accused the farm co-op of aiding the practice by cleaning soybean seeds for use in future crops.
That violated both federal patent law and the contract between Monsanto and farmers, which prohibits farmers from stockpiling seeds or selling second-generation seeds, the company claimed.
"We pursue these cases for a number of important reasons," Scott Baucum, Monsanto's director of U.S. commercial trait stewardship, said in a statement. "While it's important to Monsanto to protect our investment, it is extremely important to the entire agricultural community that we are able to continue to reinvest in new and better seed technology."
Baucum said Monsanto invests $1 in research and development for every $10 a farmer spends on seed. He said Monsanto's pursuit of similar cases is motivated partly by a desire to "assure a level playing field" for farmers who abide by their contracts, and to wipe out "unfair advantage" for farmers who Monsanto believes violated their contracts with the company.
Under the terms of the settlement, Pilot Grove farmers group will give $275,000 to fund local agricultural scholarships, and will buy $1.1 million in Monsanto products over six years. The settlement with the farmers-owned organization tries to minimize the affects on farmers who did not violate laws or contracts.
"We are glad to have been able to resolve this issue professionally and in a way that demonstrates the commitment of both Monsanto and Pilot Grove Coop to agriculture and this community in a way that minimizes the impact to those farmer-members who were not involved," Earl Haller of Pilot Grove Coop said in a statement. "We are also glad to be able to offer seed with traits and to continue to do business with Monsanto."
As part of the settlement, Pilot Grove Coop will develop and adopt a stewardship policy to avoid future patent infringement and will work with a third-party organization to provide training for employees.
Monsanto said it sues over saved seed relatively rarely, and that only a small fraction of its 250,000 annual customers saves seed containing patented traits. In most of these situations, Monsanto is able to reach a settlement without filing suit, according to the company.
During the past 10 years the vast majority of seed patent infringement claims were settled without the need for any legal action, according to Monsanto. The company sued farmers for seed patent infringement approximately 125 times. Of those 125 lawsuits, all but eight were settled without trial. Monsanto won those eight trials.
Monsanto's struggle to keep control of the seeds it sells is a big-money endeavor. Last November, an analysis by the Center for Food Safety indicated that recorded judgments against farmers totalled $21.6 million as of October 26, 2007. But those court-recorded numbers missed more than $85 million and as much as $160 million in out-of-court seed piracy matters, according to the environmental advocacy group.
2.EXTRACTS from: Investigation - Monsanto's Harvest of Fear
by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele May 2008
Vanity Fair, May 2008
...Scenes [of confrontation with farmers] 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.
When asked about these practices, Monsanto declined to comment specifically, other than to say that the company is simply protecting its patents. "Monsanto spends more than $2 million a day in research to identify, test, develop and bring to market innovative new seeds and technologies that benefit farmers," Monsanto spokesman Darren Wallis wrote in an e-mailed letter to Vanity Fair. "One tool in protecting this investment is patenting our discoveries and, if necessary, legally defending those patents against those who might choose to infringe upon them." 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.
Some compare Monsanto's hard-line approach to Microsoft's zealous efforts to protect its software from pirates. At least with Microsoft the buyer of a program can use it over and over again. But farmers who buy Monsanto's seeds can't even do that.
The Control of Nature
For centuries - millennia - farmers have saved seeds from season to season: they planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, then reclaimed and cleaned the seeds over the winter for re-planting the next spring. Monsanto has turned this ancient practice on its head.
Monsanto developed G.M. seeds that would resist its own herbicide, Roundup, offering farmers a convenient way to spray fields with weed killer without affecting crops. Monsanto then patented the seeds. 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. "It's not like describing a widget," says Joseph Mendelson III, the legal director of the Center for Food Safety, which has tracked Monsanto's activities in rural America for years.
Indeed not. 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.
Farmers who buy Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.
This radical departure from age-old practice has created turmoil in farm country. Some farmers don't fully understand that they aren't supposed to save Monsanto's seeds for next year’s planting. Others do, but ignore the stipulation rather than throw away a perfectly usable product. Still others say that they don’t use Monsanto's genetically modified seeds, but seeds have been blown into their fields by wind or deposited by birds. It's certainly easy for G.M. seeds to get mixed in with traditional varieties when seeds are cleaned by commercial dealers for re-planting. 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.
Most Americans know Monsanto because of what it sells to put on our lawns”” the ubiquitous weed killer Roundup. What they may not know is that the company now profoundly influences - and one day may virtually control -what we put on our tables...
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.
Even more significant, in the Center's opinion, are the numbers of farmers who settle because they don't have the money or the time to fight Monsanto. "The number of cases filed is only the tip of the iceberg," says Bill Freese, the Center's science-policy analyst. 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, "Monsanto knows that you are saving Roundup Ready seeds, and if you don't sign these information-release forms, Monsanto is going to come after you and take your farm or take you for all you're worth." 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.
Pilot Grove, Missouri, population 750, sits in rolling farmland 150 miles west of St. Louis. 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 computers.
In the fall of 2006, Monsanto trained its legal guns on Pilot Grove; ever since, its farmers have been drawn into a costly, disruptive legal battle against an opponent with limitless resources. Neither Pilot Grove nor Monsanto will discuss the case, but it is possible to piece together much of the story from documents filed as part of the litigation.
Monsanto began investigating soybean farmers in and around Pilot Grove several years ago. 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."
Once Pilot Grove had been targeted, Monsanto sent private investigators into the area. Over a period of months, Monsanto's investigators surreptitiously followed the co-op's employees and customers and videotaped them in fields and going about other activities. At least 17 such surveillance videos were made, according to court records. The investigative work was outsourced to a St. Louis agency, McDowell & Associates. 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: "Surveillance was conducted throughout the year by various investigators in the field," according to court records. McDowell, like Monsanto, will not comment on the case.
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 customers.
In the majority of cases where Monsanto sues, or threatens to sue, farmers settle before going to trial. The cost and stress of litigating against a global corporation are just too great. But Pilot Grove wouldn’t cave””and ever since, Monsanto has been turning up the heat. The more the co-op has resisted, the more legal firepower Monsanto has aimed at it. Pilot Grove's lawyer, Steven H. Schwartz, described Monsanto in a court filing as pursuing a "scorched earth tactic," intent on "trying to drive the co-op into the ground."
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.
Monsanto next petitioned to make potential damages punitive - tripling the amount that Pilot Grove might have to pay if found guilty. After a judge denied that request, Monsanto expanded the scope of the pre-trial investigation by seeking to quadruple the number of depositions. "Monsanto is doing its best to make this case so expensive to defend that the Co-op will have no choice but to relent," Pilot Grove's lawyer said in a court filing.
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.
Whether Pilot Grove can continue to wage its legal battle remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the case shows why Monsanto is so detested in farm country, even by those who buy its products. "I don't know of a company that chooses to sue its own customer base," says Joseph Mendelson, of the Center for Food Safety. "It's a very bizarre business strategy." But it's one that Monsanto manages to get away with, because increasingly it's the dominant vendor in town.