TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, July 14, 2003: Monsanto and President
George W. Bush have one thing in common. Both have a liking
for the "walk softly and carry a big stick" form
of public relations. Bush uses his big economic stick to gain
the support of various nations in his quest to make the world
safe for American corporations.
Monsanto also uses a big economic stick - the big stick of
the courtroom, to beat up those who fall afoul of its litigious
nature. And, like Mr. Bush, Monsanto has been pretty successful
with these tactics. After all, the effect of a cluster bomb
dropping on the home quarter would not be much more devastating
than the effect of being sued by a huge corporation that is
willing and able to spend millions to gain its ends.
Monsanto is very determined to defend its position that farmers
must buy new seed of its patented genetically modified crops
each year. Monsanto has built a whole department to enforce
its seed patents and licensing agreements. It has 75 employees
and an annual budget of $10 million.
An estimated 400 farmers have received threats of legal action
from Monsanto over alleged patent infringement. While Canadian
farmers will be familiar with the trials and tribulations
of Percy Schmeiser, names like Homan McFarling and Nelson
Farms should resonate with American producers. Few of these
cases ever get to court because most farmers look at the odds
of outlasting Monsanto and simply give in. A clause in Monsanto's
licensing agreement allows Monsanto to take such cases in
the U.S. before courts in Missouri. This can add a huge amount
to the legal bills of farmers who might be thousands of miles
Several of the cases that have gone to court are enough to
scare farmers into meek submission to Monsanto's demands.
Homan McFarling was fined $780,000 for growing Roundup Ready
soybeans without paying Monsanto's licensing fee. Tennessee
farmer Kem Ralph was fined $1.7 million and
sentenced to eight months in jail for a variety of offenses
that began with a Monsanto lawsuit.
Monsanto must be pleased with the results of its aggressive
legal campaign. So pleased, in fact, it has decided to branch
out. Monsanto's latest foray into the courtroom has it suing
a dairy in Maine, alleging that Oakhurst Dairy's marketing
campaign that touts its milk as being free of artificial growth
hormones is misleading. Monsanto further claims Oakhurst's
ads and labels are deceptive and disparage Monsanto's products
by implying that milk from untreated cows is better than milk
from hormone-treated cows.
Monsanto is the world's only producer of artificial bovine
hormone (BGH). This product is banned in Canada and elsewhere
because of concerns about its impact on humans and the cows
that are injected with it. In the U.S., where BGH is legal,
some dairy farmers have captured a niche market by declaring
that they do not use it on their cows. The Oakhurst Dairy
label is simple enough: "Our Farmers' Pledge: No
Artificial Growth Hormones." Who would have thought that
a simple statement of the truth could have such dire consequences?
Oddly enough, it would not be unexpected if Monsanto were
to name the state of Maine as a co-defendant. Maine has a
program, the Quality Trademark Seal, which can only be carried
on dairy products that are guaranteed free of artificial growth
Monsanto's latest legal moves have angered farmers and consumers
alike. Oakhurst Dairy defends the right of consumers to know
what is in the milk they drink. Farmers who currently produce
this milk would lose the ability to differentiate their product
if Monsanto's suit is successful. Other dairies, which make
similar claims, will be watching.
Monsanto treads on thin ice with its aggressive litigation.
However, it need not fear the same consumer backlash that
other companies might face. Monsanto does not sell directly
to the average consumer. Rather, its customers are farmers
who often have no other place to go if they want to grow certain
products. Because of this dependency relationship, farmers
cannot afford to stay angry at Monsanto forever. Monsanto,
the other hand, can enjoy the exercise of its brute power
with little fear of repercussions. It is a situation that
could easily get worse.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.