Monsanto Stands Invincible As Ever

Canola field in New South Wales, Australia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) just won the right to ruin Australia's farming industry and further control the world's food supply. Even though an organic farmer's livelihood hangs in the balance, a judge Down Under said it doesn't matter: There will be no accountability for genetically modified crops contaminating a neighboring farmer's fields.

Imagine an industrial manufacturer whose regular methods of operation include allowing pollutants to spill onto surrounding properties, contaminating them. Now picture a judge ruling that because the products it manufactured were lawful, there was nothing inherently wrong with their manufacture. And because its disposal systems were standard industry practice, the fact that it was polluting its neighbors' property didn't matter, so the manufacturer couldn't be held responsible for the outcome. That's the equivalent of what that Australian judge just decided.  

Steve Marsh is an organic farmer in Australia whose neighbor Michael Baxter began planting Monsanto's genetically modified Roundup Ready canola seed soon after Western Australia authorized their use in 2010. Baxter planted the seed in plots adjacent to Marsh's organic fields that were separated only by a dirt lane.

In his lawsuit against Baxter that was filed after Marsh lost organic certification of 70% of his fields (costing him over $78,000), the organic farmer contended the GM seed blew across the road and contaminated his organic canola. 

According to the Australian Oilseeds Federation, GM canola accounted for approximately 15% to 20% of Australia's canola crop in the 2012 to 2013 growing season. Here in North America, where GM canola accounts for 90% of the total, it's nearly universal. 

Monsanto, DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) , and Syngenta  (NYSE: SYT  )  control 53% of the world's seed production with their GM variants. With at least 85% of all soybeans, corn, and sugar beets grown from genetically modified seed it's a good bet if you see any of those listed as ingredients on a label, there's a good chance it's been modified on a genetic level. It's estimated 60% to 70% of all food on supermarket shelves is GMO.

Although Monsanto has said it would never go after a farmer for violating its patents in instances where just trace levels of its transgenic genes were present, in actuality it has proven all too willing to bring the full weight of its vast financial resources against farmers who've claimed their were crops were contaminated in a fashion similar to what happened with Marsh. Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers who've improperly reused its patented seeds -- or about one lawsuit every three weeks for 16 straight years. And it's never lost.

The judge in his ruling further said he thought the decision by the organic authority to strip Marsh of his certification was a "gross overreaction," that since only a small portion of the canola was contaminated, it could easily have been removed. But that's beside the point as it suggests farmers using GM-tainted seeds can ride roughshod over the rights of other farmers, and that organic farmers have to accommodate them.

The ruling stands the concept of property rights on its head. A farmer should have the right grow GMO crops so long as they stay on his property. He ought to be required to take pains to ensure they don't contaminate his neighbors crops. Like polluters, once the seed crosses over that boundary, he is then infringing on his neighbor and should be held accountable. 

Unlike the U.S. and elsewhere where the probability of cross-contamination is acknowledged and trace amounts of GMOs are permitted in crops that are otherwise labeled "organic," Australia doesn't have that distinction. Organic means 100% organic with no trace GMOs permitted. It was thought that if Marsh was successful in defending his property rights that Australia might be forced to relax its standards. Now, though, having lost the decision, it's possible Australia might do so anyway.

Because Monsanto requires farmers to sign nonliability clauses when they purchase seeds from it, the biotech was not at risk financially in the event of a loss (it hedged when asked if it was financially defending Baxter in the case). So it was a win-win situation regardless, because no matter how it fell out, if Australia changes its strict anti-GMO policies, it will be able to sell more GM seed.

While I thought this case was the best chance proponents of organic farming had of denting Monsanto's armor, in the end it proved it's as invincible as it's always been.

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Read/Post Comments (21) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 6:03 PM, TruthfulTalk wrote:

    I prefer to not eat glyphosate thank you. We should have the choice on what we put in our bodies and not be forced by a greedy corps to ingest their unproven chemicals that are destroy our ecosystem.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 6:05 PM, nickmaxell1 wrote:

    I m glad I live in a country that prohibits GMO completely

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 6:06 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    "Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers who've improperly reused its patented seeds -- or about one lawsuit every three weeks for 16 straight years. And it's never lost."

    Of course, Monsanto has not lost, because in most of these extreme cases, the defendant was blatantly and deliberately violating the provisions of the contract he or she signed with Monsanto.

    No one is forcing a farmer to buy Monsanto seeds. The seed business is intensely competitive with big, medium and small producers. Farmers buy Monsanto seeds because farmers make money doing so with Monsanto's superior, high-yielding seeds.

    ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 6:07 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    "Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers who've improperly reused its patented seeds -- or about one lawsuit every three weeks for 16 straight years. And it's never lost."

    Of course, Monsanto has not lost, because in most of these extreme cases, the defendant was blatantly and deliberately violating the provisions of the contract he or she signed with Monsanto.

    No one is forcing a farmer to buy Monsanto seeds. The seed business is intensely competitive with big, medium and small producers. Farmers buy Monsanto seeds because farmers make money doing so with Monsanto's superior, high-yielding seeds.

    ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 6:14 PM, frellmedead wrote:

    Most evil company ever.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 6:17 PM, frellmedead wrote:

    @funfun: Yeah, and I have some oceanfront property in New Mexico to sell you.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 7:34 PM, GeorgePolitico02 wrote:

    The best thing that could happen in this debate is for the focus to shift way from panic about "frankenfoods" and toward evaluation of GMOs item by item, characteristic by characteristic.

    Genetic engineering is like mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering in that whether a product is safe depends on its composition and on how it is used--rather than on how it was constructed.

    First-generation GMOs may indeed need improvement and Monsanto's business practices may need reform. However, the first cars, airplanes, ships, trains, roads, buildings, sewers, stoves, washing machines, light bulbs, LEDs, telephones, radios, televisions, phonograph records, cameras, motion-picture machines, computers, batteries, photovoltaic cells, rockets and Earth-orbiting satellites were unimpressive devices and—by modern standards—almost worthless. Fortunately, there were people who saw the potential in these inventions and continued to develop them. They improved and so will genetic engineering.

    Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were both as ruthless as Monsanto. However, the right answer was to pass laws new laws governing permissible business practices, rather than to ban cars and electric light bulbs.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 8:12 PM, lorigrierson wrote:

    I wish that Monsanto would just go to hell. They will eventually be there anyway

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 10:36 PM, SomethingCryptic wrote:

    Rapeseed is where canola oil comes from and it is a genetically modified plant this is because we can not consume "natural/organic" rapeseed oil without becoming ill as the result of toxins in the seed. You are either woefully ignorant or just stupid and it is unclear which is the case.

    If your predicating that organic crops can not be grown next too GMO crops because of contamination then you can not use GMO crops and call it organic, because then your crops are already GMO contaminated.

    Just so we are clear CANOLA OIL IS A GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROP.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 4:01 AM, entheogenius wrote:

    x

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 4:50 AM, entheogenius wrote:

    I wonder what Monsanto would do if my GMO pollen cross contaminated their plants. Would they try and sue for damages? I might put the capsaicin gene from Ghost and Scorpion peppers into a bunch of corn and soybeans and grow it all around their breeding facilities! Well this individual made 1/2 our corn and soybean seeds make plants as hot as pepper mace and we want him to pay for damages. except with the way the laws are now, I could sue them for stealing my patented pollen. Neat Huh? Oh by the way Minnesota state employees photocopied my journals, said I'm mentally ill, locked me up, force fed me drugs and ran off with all sorts of ideas I'm seeing pop up everywhere.

    Anyways It's obvious the judge in this case was a psycho sell out allowing these clowns to vandalize other peoples crops for personal profit.

    I wanted to make cherry tomatoes with the capsaicin gene and call them cherry bomb tomatoes, but I wouldn't want them to cross pollinate normal ones. That's irresponsible. P.S. that's one of the ideas they ran off with in 2007.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 8:27 AM, RevStorm wrote:

    The "Court of Public Opinion" takes a vote with every food product purchased and with the growing number of people NOT buy GMO'd products it's just a matter of time before GMO's are gone.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 11:36 AM, dockofthebay wrote:

    Monsanto's history is an ugly one and it appears that the ugly chapters will continue as long as our government is unwilling to to put an end to the abuse and unethical practices. I have no love for those farmers who don't give a damn about what they do to their neighbors either.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 1:35 PM, ridgerow49 wrote:

    If the pollen from the organic producer drifted onto a field of GMO canola and made the resulting seed crop unacceptable for sales would the organic producer have to compensate the seed grower?

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 1:35 PM, sunstrokefarm wrote:

    As long as Monsanto is backed and encouraged by our government, there will never be change. The court of public opinion doesn't have a chance because Monsanto is back by our gov. Giving us a choice of buy or not buy would be achieved by truth in labeling.

    Truth isn't something our government or Monsanto will allow. They'll lie - we'll die

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 1:44 PM, Farmhound wrote:

    Richey was the Po Po. Here all this time I thought you were some genetic scientist or engineer or something. Ha your just a flat foot with an opinion like everyone else.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 4:15 PM, getthefacts4 wrote:

    3:00 PM

    There you go again Mr Deprey:

    Monsanto did NOT "just won the right to ruin Australia's farming industry and further control the world's food supply". Quite the opposite. No-one was destroyed except a foolish farmer as the judge said - there was no real harm except due to impractical rules about organic farmers that are not based on reality. The word "pollutants" you used implied that GM crops are harmful but they are not based on evidence ---you know facts…don't you hate when those things get in the way. There has been ZERO hospitalization due to GM food but people have died from organic food -- so really the GN farmer should have sued the organic farmer !!! You can quote all the scare stories you want - that is what they are ---- works of fiction. Harmless things don't contaiminate

    Even under the crazy rules of organic the farmers didn't lose his crop - he stopped having the ability to fleece the consumer for the premium he charged for a product that is not safer than conventional or GM. Seems like the GM farmer saved the public from a fraud

    Monsanto makes less than 5% of the world's food seed. Yes they have a high share of GM traits and about 35% of US corn and soy but they MAKE SEEDS and don't sell food. ..and their customers love their products

    You say " Although Monsanto has said it would never go after a farmer for violating its patents in instances where just trace levels of its transgenic genes were present, in actuality it has proven all too willing to bring the full weight of its vast financial resources against farmers who've claimed their were crops were contaminated in a fashion similar to what happened with Marsh. Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers who've improperly reused its patented seeds -- or about one lawsuit every three weeks for 16 straight years."

    1. Monsanto today is literally not the same company as the Monsanto in 1997.

    2. It has several millions customers and has sued as you say correctly about 140 so that is a tiny fraction of 1% i.e. 99.9% of their customers obey the rules. If you don't like patents stop living and using present day technology. Really.

    3. They have never sued anyone for accidental mixing of Gm with non-GM ---NEVER. A US supreme court ruling said so. - Don't believe me

    You say "The ruling stands the concept of property rights on its head."

    No its affirms rights.

    I am not sorry to say the author is naive and has no idea what I he is writing about.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 4:23 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    "Imagine an industrial manufacturer whose regular methods of operation include allowing pollutants to spill onto surrounding properties, contaminating them. Now picture a judge ruling that because the products it manufactured were lawful, there was nothing inherently wrong with their manufacture. And because its disposal systems were standard industry practice, the fact that it was polluting its neighbors' property didn't matter, so the manufacturer couldn't be held responsible for the outcome. That's the equivalent of what that Australian judge just decided. "

    Cute analogy, but biotech crops shouldn't be likened to pollutants.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 8:23 PM, TMFCop wrote:

    Only when they contaminate someone else's crops, and then particularly when they jeopardize their livelihood. I think it's a completely apropos analogy.

    We wouldn't stand for it if it was dioxin; we shouldn't tolerate it simply because it's canola.

    Rich

  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2014, at 11:24 AM, Farmhound wrote:

    Richy

    As we used to say when we were PO PO's. Nothing to see here folks, go back to your lives!

  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2014, at 1:06 PM, JohnnyBGood wrote:

    Have you met these two farmers? if so, then you'd know that the judge made the right decision.

    This was a neighbourly dispute that should have been handled as such. The judge saw what we all saw--Marsh wasn't harmed in any way shape or form. That's why Mr. Baxter won on all counts.

    So your Foolish readers are clear, Mr. Marsh sued Baxter because stalks from GM plants lawfully grown on Mr. Baxter's property blew into one of Marsh's fields. Mr. Marsh has never grown canola, so there was no risk of any contamination of Mr. Marsh's crop (he grew wheat, not canola).

    Marsh could have picked up the stalks and been done with it, or simply let them be, since they weren't doing him any harm. Instead, spurred on by a for-profit class action plaintiffs firm looking for a big payday, he sued and nearly bankrupted his neighbour, reportedly straining Baxter's marriage to the breaking point. Simply awful.

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