Percy Schmeiser was a farmer. Shortly after the Monsanto company introduced genetically modified (GM) canola plants to Canada, Percy Schmeiser was a farmer facing a lawsuit.
After hearing that GM crops could potentially increase yields, three farmers in Schmeiser's region planted fields of Monsanto's seed. Winds pushed pollen from GM canola into Schmeiser's fields, and the plants cross-pollinated. The breed he had been cultivating for 50 years was now contaminated by Monsanto's GM canola.
Did Monsanto apologize? No. It sued Schmeiser for patent infringement — first charging the farmer per acre of contamination, then slapping him with another suit for $1 million and attempting to seize his land and farming equipment. After a seven-year battle, the Canadian Supreme Court eventually ruled against him but let him keep his farm and his $1 million. He was one of the lucky ones.
Schmeiser's case illustrates how Monsanto is dominating — and terrifying — the agricultural world with secretive technologies, strong-arm tactics, and government approval. According to the Center for Food Safety, Monsanto has filed at least 142 similar lawsuits against farmers for alleged infringement of its patents or abuse of its technology agreement. The company has won 72 judgments totaling almost $24 million.
Agriculture is a big industry in Florida. About $130 billion-per-year big, the second-largest industry behind tourism. Statewide, 9 million acres of farmland are divided into more than 47,500 commercial farms. In fact, Palm Beach County is the largest agricultural county east of the Mississippi River.
According to the USDA, 95,000 acres of corn, 125,000 acres of upland cotton, and 25,000 acres of soybeans have been planted in the state in 2013. With Food and Water Watch warning that nationally, 90 to 93 percent of such crops are genetically modified, Floridians have cause to know what's lurking up the food chain.
A Biotech Revolution
When you're good at something, you want to leverage that. Monsanto's specialty is killing stuff.
In the early years, the St. Louis biotech giant helped pioneer such leading chemicals as DDT, PCBs, and Agent Orange. Unfortunately, these breakthroughs had a tendency to harm humans too.
When lawsuits piled up, putting a crimp in long-term profitability, Monsanto hatched a less lethal, more lucrative plan. It would attempt to take control of the world's food supply.
This mission started in the mid-'90s, when the company began developing genetically modified crops like soybeans, corn, alfalfa, sugar beets, and wheat (much of it used for livestock feed). Monsanto bred crops that were immune to its leading weed killer, Roundup. That meant farmers no longer had to till the land to kill weeds, as they'd done for hundreds of years. They could simply blast their fields with chemicals. The weeds would die while the crops grew unaffected. Problem solved.
Monsanto put a wonderful spin on this development: The so-called "No-Till Revolution" promised greater yields, better profits for the family farm, and a heightened ability to feed a growing world.
But there was a dark side. First, farmers grew dependent on Monsanto, having to buy new seed every year, along with Monsanto's pesticides. The effects on human health were largely unknown — would it harm people to consume foods whose genetic profile had suddenly changed after millions of years? Or to eat the animals that had consumed those plants? What about ripple effects on ecosystems?
But agriculture had placed the belligerent strongman in charge of the buffet line.
Monsanto squeezed out competitors by buying the biggest seed companies, spending $12 billion on the splurge. The company bought up the best shelf space and distribution channels. Its braying of global benevolence began to look much more like a naked power grab.
Seed prices began to soar. Since 1996, the cost of soybeans has increased 325 percent. Corn has risen 259 percent. And the price of genetically modified cotton has jumped a stunning 516 percent.
Instead of feeding the world, Monsanto drove prices through the roof — taking the biggest share for itself. A study by Dr. Charles Benbrook at Washington State University found that rapidly increasing seed and pesticide costs were tamping farmers' income, cutting them from any benefits of the new technology.
Still, Monsanto was doing its best to make them play along. It offered steep discounts to independent dealers willing to restrict themselves to selling mostly Monsanto products. These same contracts brought severe punishment if independents ever sold out to a rival. U.S. regulators showed little concern for Monsanto's expanding power.
"They're a pesticide company that's bought up seed firms," says Bill Freese, a scientist at the Center for Food Safety. "Businesswise, it's a beautiful, really smart strategy. It's just awful for agriculture and the environment."
Today, Monsanto seeds cover 40 percent of America's crop acres — and 27 percent worldwide. The company makes nearly $8 billion per year.
"If you put control over plant and genetic resources into the hands of the private sector... and anybody thinks that plant breeding is still going to be used to solve society's real problems and to advance food security, I have a bridge to sell them," says Benbrook.