“The world’s not as clean and pristine as they say it is,” says Vince Holtz, who grows conventional alfalfa seed near Nampa and runs a small seed-cleaning plant where he processes other growers’ seed. An alfalfa plant can produce as many as 10,000 seeds, seeds so small that, in bulk, they tend to behave more like a liquid than a solid. They leak everywhere and are easily tracked from field to field. “You could have a field full of basketballs,” Holtz says, “and it’s pretty easy to find them, and it’s contained, and you can remove it from the system, you know? But this stuff — it’s making pollen, and the seeds are long-lived; they can survive in the ground.”
There is, as well, the issue of “escapes” — alfalfa plants that grow next to phone poles, or alongside irrigation pipes, and lie just out of the reach of a farmer in a harvester. When such feral alfalfa blooms, its pollen is spread by bees, and the plant eventually drops its seeds and further multiplies its genes. And in alfalfa-growing country, feral alfalfa is everywhere: Phil Geertson, who lives in a duplex in the little town of Greenleaf, has to go no further than the field next door to find it. There, on a patch of ground he says hasn’t been irrigated for two years, the plants grow robust and green. And there is no shortage of pathways along which the seed can spread. Cattle can eat the seed and deposit it miles away, undigested and biologically viable, in a fertilizer-rich patty. Birds can spread the seed. Seed can fall out of trucks. “It’s amazing,” says Geertson. “There’s just so many different ways it can be spread around.”
Monsanto has wrapped its fight to keep Roundup Ready alfalfa from being outlawed in the rhetoric of “choice.” Following Breyer’s initial ruling in February, Andrew Burchett, a spokes-man for Monsanto, told Farm Industry News: “We’re going to do everything we think is appropriate to defend growers’ right to choose this technology. Our goal is to restore that choice for farmers.”
It was a curious position to take, given that Monsanto has spent the last decade all but forcing farmers to buy bundled packages of its seeds and herbicides, while, opponents claim, systematically eliminating its competitors. In fact, the company now faces at least 20 antitrust lawsuits over its actions.
Monsanto has assiduously kept the details of its empire-building out of the public eye. When its internal affairs are scrutinized in court, the company routinely invokes trade-secrets protections to keep its documents under seal. Taken together, however, the publicly available portions of the lawsuits currently pending against the company paint the outline of a top-to-bottom strategy to control the seed and herbicide business. The most recent lawsuit, filed by the American Corn Growers Association against Monsanto in February, lays out the basic details.
Beginning in 1996 — the same year it first released a Roundup Ready crop — Monsanto went on a more than $9 billion buying spree of some of the nation’s biggest seed companies. Two years ago, Monsanto paid $1.4 billion for the fruit-and-vegetable-seed giant Seminis and became the biggest seed company in the world. (The acquisition plan is ongoing: This May, Monsanto received approval from the U.S. Depart-ment of Justice for its $1.5 billion acquisition of Delta and Pine Land Co., the largest cottonseed company in the nation.)
According to the Corn Growers lawsuit, “Monsanto’s plan also included the suppression of herbicide-tolerant trait technologies … that could compete with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology.” Between 1996 and 1998, for example, Monsanto acquired a controlling interest in DeKalb Genetics Corporation. Then it quashed that company’s partnership with Bayer CropScience to develop a line of crops resistant to a glyphosate competitor known as glufosinate. In 1997, the lawsuit alleges, Monsanto bought a company called Asgrow and killed a similar effort.
“In addition to eliminating actual competition through acquisitions,” the lawsuit goes on to allege, “Monsanto also pursued a strategy of neutralizing potential competitors by entering into restrictive licensing agreements with (the) independent seed companies” that incorporated Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genes into their own seed lines. Under that scheme, Monsanto waives royalty fees and pays rebates to seed companies if crop lines containing Monsanto’s genes make up at least 70 percent of each company’s total sales.
Monsanto is also accused of attempting to “cartelize” the seed market and fix prices by entering into agreements with independent seed companies. The company allegedly laid that strategy out in 1996, in what it called the Maize Protection Business Plan. The plan has remained under seal through several different lawsuits, but the Corn Growers allege that it “became the blueprint for Monsanto’s overall licensing strategy to restrict competition in biotechnology seed traits and related markets.” A class-action effort filed by several soybean farmers in the Midwest alleged that during the late 1990s, as part of the plan, top Monsanto executives met with leaders from Pioneer to fix prices for Roundup Ready seeds. Monsanto settled that case out of court last year, but the allegations have been revived in the recent Corn Growers’ lawsuit and several others.
According to the lawsuits, cartelization not only gave Monsanto and its partners a way to fix prices, but — by entering into agreements with independent seed companies through which Monsanto aimed to gain control over 90 percent of the seed market — allowed the company to block competitors from entering that market. The most dramatic example involves a company called Syngenta Seeds. Three years ago, Syngenta, which manufactures a glyphosate herbicide called Touchdown, bought the rights to a glyphosate-resistant gene from Bayer CropScience. Syngenta then announced plans to introduce its own Touchdown-tolerant crop line that would have competed with Roundup Ready crops. But Monsanto, according to allegations in several lawsuits, prohibited its partner seed companies from developing any crop lines with Syngenta’s gene — locking Syngenta out of the game.
Having controlled the supply side of the glyphosate market, Monsanto also, according to the Corn Growers’ and other lawsuits, imposed a series of restrictive agreements on herbicide dealers and distributors. The company stipulated that dealers could only receive rebates — which often constitute a substantial portion of a dealer’s profits — if their sales of Roundup were at least 80 percent of their total sales of all brands of glypho-sate. Finally, farmers themselves have not escaped Monsanto’s near-total embrace: When they buy Roundup Ready seeds, the Corn Growers lawsuit states, Monsanto “requires (them) to sign a technology license … that effectively mandates that they use only Roundup herbicides” — and not competing brands or generics — on Roundup Ready crops.
Attorneys on both sides of the various antitrust cases have been unwilling to comment publicly. In an e-mail, Andrew Burchett, the Monsanto spokes-man, wrote, “The claims presented by the (American Corn Growers Association) and others appear to recycle old allegations regarding Monsanto’s marketing and pricing of glyphosate — complaints that DuPont has made previously in lawsuits and which were the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that was closed in 2004. We believe the complaints are without merit.”
It seems likely they will also take years to resolve.