Sunday, April 27, 2008

Big Business Agriculture Moves Against Family Farmers

Monsanto steps up a policy of harassing small farmers who end up with their products on their property due to pollination and wind drift:

The Runyons [David and Dawn] charge bio-tech giant Monsanto sent investigators to their home unannounced, demanded years of farming records, and later threatened to sue them for patent infringement. The Runyons say an anonymous tip led Monsanto to suspect that genetically modified soybeans were growing on their property.

"I wasn't using their products, but yet they were pounding on my door demanding information, demanding records," Dave said. "It was just plain harassment is what they were doing."

Today, Monsanto's patented "Round-up Ready" soy commands the lion's share of the genetically-modified soybean seed market, its genetic code manipulated to withstand the company's popular weed killer.

But the promise of fewer weeds and greater production comes with a hefty fee. Farmers must sign an iron-clad agreement not to re-plant the harvested seed, or face serious legal consequences - up to $3 million in damages.

"It's about protecting the patent, defending the patents, so farmers have the protection and can use these technologies over time," said Monsanto spokeswoman Tami Craig Schilling.

The Runyons say they signed no agreements, and if they were contaminated with the genetically modified seed, it blew over from a neighboring farm.

"Pollination occurs, wind drift occurs. There's just no way to keep their products from landing in our fields," David said.

This issue has been around for a while--and you can go back to this Mother Jones article from January/February 1997 to see what's at stake:

The only catch: Farmers using Roundup Ready seeds can only use Roundup, because any other broad-spectrum herbicide will kill their crops. So, with every Roundup Ready seed sale, Monsanto sells a season's worth of its weed killer as well. The company also keeps close tabs on the crops' progress: Farmers must sign a contract promising not to sell or give away any seeds or save them for next year's planting, and the company inspects its customers' farms for violations.

Monsanto says that the new technology will benefit the environment, arguing that the more farmers rely on Roundup, the less they will need harsher herbicides.

But studies show glyphosate, which has been described by the Environmental Defense Fund and by [former] Vice President Al Gore as safer than other herbicides, is not as benign as it is billed. Glyphosate is less toxic than many other herbicides, but it's still the third most commonly reported cause of illness among agricultural workers in California. For landscape maintenance workers, it ranks highest. And, according to the Journal of Pesticide Reform, the herbicide also damages the ability of bacteria to transform nitrogen into a usable form for plants, and it harms fungi that help plants absorb water and nutrients. Residues of the herbicide have been found in lettuce, carrots, and barley that were planted a year after the soil was sprayed.

Critics also contend that as farmers plant more Roundup Ready seeds and spray their fields with increased doses of Roundup, herbicide "drift" may increase significantly. If this happens, neighboring farms may be forced to switch to the Monsanto seeds in order to keep their crops from being destroyed by the airborne herbicide.

What is happening to the Runyons is obviously not new, but it could be the sign of a stepped up effort to intimidate farmers. As world food prices spin out of control, big agriculture has to step up and threaten people over the slightest infringement in order to keep their profit margins where they want them. Now is not the time to hand this country BACK to a Republican who is going to take Monsanto's money and keep the status quo.

Whoever wins this November should nominate a Secretary of Agriculture who will stand up to Monsanto and all the rest and help family farmers.

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