Monsanto watch: Targeting American farmers with lawyers, fear and money

One of the most important components in the success or failure of a major corporation (or "person," according to the Supreme Court) is its ability to legally pursue anyone who dares to challenge its hugeness.

Several weeks ago, after writing about agricultural giant Monsanto, arguably the "big" in Big Agribusiness, I spoke with an Iowa farmer who recounted the story of how a protracted battle with Monsanto practically destroyed his life. Another notch on the corporation's billy club.

After confronting the wrath of Monsanto, Scott McAllister went from owning a prosperous farm in Mt. Pleasant with $3 million in gross annual sales to a divorced equipment salesman with health issues and a mountain of debt.

Like McAllister, farmers too often slip into the cross hairs of the $10 million Monsanto legal team, featuring a staff of at least 75 people, not including outsourced private investigators, all tasked with crushing everything in their path. The most often cited trespass against Monsanto is patent-infringement involving its seeds. It might sound innocuous enough -- not unlike the recording industry's pursuit of file sharing internet downloaders -- but this is actually very serious business, and too many farmers have been ruined in the process.

Monsanto has somehow managed to patent organic life forms: genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Seeds. They also control 90% of the GMO market, so for a farmer to successfully compete, he or she is usually corralled by a hyper-competitive marketplace into buying Monsanto seeds. It's a monopoly, basically, and the Obama Justice Department is rightfully investigating Monsanto for anti-trust violations.

Nevertheless, if a farmer wants to recycle seeds from a previous crop and plant the seeds in a new crop, a process known as "seed cleaning," he or she can be sued by Monsanto for patent infringement. The corporation insists that farmers purchase all new seeds for each crop, and, legally, Monsanto is allowed to get away with this.

Furthermore, if you're a neighboring farmer and Monsanto seeds are naturally blown or scattered onto your farm, Monsanto can sue you, too. After all, you could be stealing their property. In this case, seeds.

The other big no-no is what's called "brown bagging" -- storing Monsanto seeds and potentially re-selling them.

Monsanto admits to investigating around 500 farmers every year for these alleged violations and often employs nefarious tactics in the process such as undercover surveillance, trespassing and intimidation. The Seed Police, they're often called. Settlements, which are how these investigations are usually resolved, range anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, with the largest settlement amount topping $3 million.

"I was doing very well at it, farming 1,200 acres of ground and was enjoying being prosperous," McAllister told me. "Then Monsanto bought the industry's major corn genetic supplier, Holden's Foundation Seed in Williamsburg, Iowa for the sum of $980 million."

Monsanto gathered all of the farmers and urged them to sign a lengthy and binding contract if they wanted access to the GMO corn seed. They had 60 days to think it over. If not, they'd be left behind in a rapidly advancing marketplace for genetically enhanced corn (contract farms using the seed could and would crush non-Monsanto farms). There was no alternative. Sign with Monsanto or shut down.

So McAllister signed. A move he would quickly regret. Almost right away, the terms of contract began to look more and more constricting and suspicious, so he decided to gather some other farmers and attempt to back out of the agreement.

And that's when he became sandwiched in the middle of the corporate battle between Monsanto and DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred International. In order to prove that Monsanto was engaging in monopolistic practices, DuPont's law firm subpoenaed McAllister's contract, so, consequently, Monsanto began to investigate McAllister.

"January of 2000 rolls around and I was late on royalty payments," McAllister continued, "and then they sued me and pulled my license agreements."

That's when McAllister decided to back down and, with DuPont's help, McAllister made an attempt to settle the thing and move on, but it wasn't in the cards. "So after many futile attempts, they refused to settle and kept insisting I was 'brown bagging' beans, which never happened." He says that Monsanto was more interested in making an example of him.

From here, McAllister's story gets really creepy. He alleges that between September, 2000 and June, 2001, Monsanto essentially stalked him. "They started following me, my family, my employees, my customers, and were interrogating people the about my business, telling them I was going to jail and they would too if they didn't cooperate." McAllister claims that investigators broke into his house, tapped his phones and "tailed his vehicles."

"Any allegation of phone tapping, trespassing, or any other illegal activity is simply not true," Monsanto's Mica Veihman wrote to me in an e-mail. "We do not break the law."

Surveillance by Monsanto via a subcontracted private investigation firm, McDowell & Associates out of St. Louis, is business as usual. Court records show numerous other instances of this kind of behavior. In one case, Monsanto's private investigators in produced 17 surveillance videos in the process of tracking the activities of workers on a co-op farm.

According to Vanity Fair, a small mom and pop general store owner, Gary Rinehart, was accosted in his store by a Monsanto agent who warned him, "Monsanto is big. You can't win. We will get you. You will pay."

"We treat farmers with respect and integrity during an investigation," Veihman wrote. "Not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it's bad business not to."

The Monsanto posture in these investigations appears to be less about treating farmers with respect and integrity and more about treating farmers as "guilty until proven innocent -- or coerced to settle."

Vanity Fair reported:

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.

When I mentioned these allegations to Veihman, she noted, "Our investigators are persistent in contacting and following up with farmers, and people view this diligence differently." Indeed.

However, Veihman and Monsanto don't dispute or deny the facts surrounding the verbal accosting of store owner Rinehart and the threat: "Monsanto is big. You can't win. We will get you. You will pay." Monsanto does suggest on its website that Rinehart became loud and angry, and that the confrontation ended in "less than two minutes." It turns out, by the way, that Monsanto's investigators were targeting the wrong man. To date, I'm not aware of any formal apology issued from Monsanto to Rinehart.

For a small town business owner like Scott McAllister, the process of corporate intimidation and legal wrangling versus a $10 million legal juggernaut exacted an enormous toll.

"I finally got tired of all the BS and negotiated a $1 million judgement to stay out of court in St. Louis. I wish I had went ahead now, but I lost everything, between legal bills and Monsanto. The farm, my house, all my vehicles -- everything."

McAllister said that he's suffering from stress-related heart problems, on top of Parkinson's Disease, and added that his wife has left him. "I live in my shop and sell farm equipment for $10 an hour."

The argument I hear most often in support of Monsanto is that its technology helps to mitigate starvation in poor and developing nations. Fair point, but genetically modified food could be a serious health risk, according to a recent study, say nothing of how the pest and weed resistant seeds are fostering mutations -- super weeds that could infest and destroy non-GMO crops. But let's concede for argument's sake that the science is still out on the negative health effects of GMO crops. How, then, does Monsanto's business of intimidating and crushing American farmers actually help to feed starving people elsewhere? It doesn't. It's reasonable, then, to suggest that Monsanto can (health aside) continue to feed starving people without destroying small farmers who dare to rub the corporate giant the wrong way.

"Monsanto will not be happy until they have complete control of the seed industry, and they are almost there," McAllister concluded. And unless something is done to blunt their most notorious business practices, they'll surely collect many more notches in the process.

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