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Monsanto Dominates GMO Market

Separating the technology of genetic engineering from the corporations that sell the technology can be difficult with Monsanto in the picture.

To to its detractors, Monsanto is “MonSatan,” “the Most Evil Company in the world,” according to a recent reader poll conducted by Mother Earth News . Although it is not the only corporation aggressively marketing biotechnology (DuPont and Dow in America, and Bayer in Germany and Syngenta in Switzerland are some of the big players), Monsanto is dominant.

With a public profile that has in the past tended toward secrecy, even the people who see the value in the biotechnology work Monsanto does are baffled by why it operates the way it does. “Monsanto is out in front” on biotechnology, said Rob McClung, a professor of biology at Dartmouth College. But he added a caveat: “Monsanto’s not stupid but they frequently behave stupidly.”

For instance, Monsanto requires that farmers sign contracts promising not to save seeds, which has the effect of forcing them to return to Monsanto year after year to buy new ones. Monsanto has sued farmers who try to save seeds from GMO-based Roundup Ready crops for planting the next season. Most recently, it sued an Indiana farmer on those grounds.

This May, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, found for Monsanto. While Monsanto may have scored a legal victory, critics say the company lost in the court of public opinion.

That farmer was “not a threat to Monsanto and they’re suing him. It’s easy to get up in arms about that kind of thing,” said Jack.

For the record, said Jack, none of the biological research conducted at Dartmouth is funded by Monsanto. Major funders are the National Science Foundation, which supports the bulk of research on plant molecular biology at the college, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy and the USDA,”which is out to support Big Ag, that’s for sure.”

But Tom Helscher, director of corporate affairs for Monsanto, countered the view that Monsanto has routinely sued farmers for patent infringement. “The notion of Monsanto going out of its way to sue small famers is simply myth. Farmers our are customers. We have over 300,000 farmer customers who make the decision every year who to buy seed from — they have many choices. … We will file a lawsuit as a last resort when we are aware of the intentional, illegal use of our patented seed products,” he wrote in an email. The company has made clear that it will not “exercise its patent rights” in cases where trace amounts of Monsanto seeds or traits are believed to have inadvertently found a way into a farmer’s fields.

Helscher also argued with the perception that the company has denied access to independent scientists seeking to test genetically modified materials, stating that since 2006 Monsanto has taken steps to “enable the public sector research community to independently conduct research studies on commercial seed products. The intent was to benefit crop producers and researchers while relieving universities and Monsanto of the burden created by time-consuming negotiation of research agreements on a case by case basis. …We provided licenses to universities, which extends to its researchers, to conduct research studies.”

Jack Shepherd, a retired professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth who still teaches in the college’s master’s degree program, is dubious of Monsanto, and other biotech corporations, for another reason.

Shepherd, who began his career as a reporter in the 1960s for Look and Newsweek magazines, has spent much of his career in sub-Saharan Africa, looking at the problems of famine and food as an instrument of politics.

The largest biotech companies that are driving the technology are “accelerating large, industrial agriculture and I don’t think that benefits you or me,” he said. — Nicola Smith

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The “Terminator” gene, which would have prevented farmers from growing crops from seeds produced by the current year’s harvest, was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Delta and Pine Land Co. Amid public concern over the gene, Monsanto, the industry leader in biotechnology, committed in 1999 to never develop or commercialize a sterile seed technology. An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Monsanto’s role.

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