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Monsanto in the anti-GMO crosshairs: Fair or foul?

According to standard issue anti-GMO ideology, Monsanto is emblematic of and at the root of all that is wrong with food and agriculture.

“Of all the mega-corps running amok, Monsanto has consistently outperformed its rivals, earning the crown as “most evil corporation on Earth!” opines a familiar rant by the Centre for Research on Globalization, a far left Canadian NGO. “Not content to simply rest upon its throne of destruction, it remains focused on newer, more scientifically innovative ways to harm the planet and its people.”

The pressure on many leftists who do support crop biotechnology is so strong that they often couple their endorsement of GMOs with a pro forma gratuitous swipe at Monsanto, treating it like a crazy uncle or worse, so as not to lose credibility with fellow liberals that they align with on other issues.

Let’s examine four of the major claims targeting Monsanto and match them up against the empirical facts:

(1) Monsanto controls the world seed supply and food industry by abusing the patent system

“It’s not science fiction anymore,” screams, a far left website that purports to report on the media. “Monsanto Seeks to Control World’s Food.”

Monsanto is just one seed company in a robust and growing global industry. There are literally thousands of seed companies, selling everything from heirloom seeds to hybrid organics to GMOs. Farmers in industrial countries, including organic farmers, usually opt for patented proprietary seeds as they are more productive. Patents on hybrid seeds have been common in agriculture since the 1930s. GM seeds are also proprietary with normal patent protections—again, as are many hybrid organic seeds.

Major seed companies—not just Monsanto—had faced criticism in the 2000s for not sharing some of its technological research with independent universities. In 2009, they met with corn entomologists and representatives from the US government and public universities in Ames, Iowa to address how to strike a balance between the seed companies’ desire for well-designed scientific studies and the public scientists’ desire to conduct hassle-free research on transgenic seed. The ensuing discussion led to the development of a set of principles, embodied in the Academic Research License (ARL), that has led to the wide availability of GM seeds for independent research by universities and other public institutions. Monsanto alone has ARLs in place with all major agriculturally-focused US universities—about 100 in total.

The criticism that Monsanto controls the seed market, the food supply or the GM business is just not supported by the facts. Despite attacks on the global patent system by fringe organizations like the ETC Group, the US Supreme Court has consistently and overwhelmingly supported the critical role of patents to incentivize research in agriculture and elsewhere. It’s the bedrock of liberal capitalism, which many anti-GMO groups fundamentally oppose.

(2) Monsanto sues organic and other conventional farmers when GM plants show up accidentally on their farms

There is not one legal case—not one—that supports this widely circulated lie. Monsanto has a long-standing public commitment that “it has never been, nor will it be, Monsanto’s policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in a farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.” However, much like Apple in computers or Nike in the shoe and apparel industry or Starbucks in the coffee business, it aggressively protects its patent rights from those who try to steal its intellectual property. Monsanto has sued more than 140 farmers who have used its seeds without licensing agreements and has settled over 700 additional cases of patent rights infringement outside of court.

The myth has been kept on life support by misrepresenting the controversial case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who Monsanto sued for illegally saving Roundup Ready canola seeds in the 1990s. Schmeiser, who is now on the anti-GMO paid lecture tour circuit, claims to this day the presence of Monsanto’s patented seeds found in his fields was accidental, due to drift. Three separate court decisions—in 2001, 2002 and 2004—determined he was lying—that he attempted to illegally steal the seeds.

The most important court case in the United States between a grower and agricultural biotech company over alleged “accidental” use of Monsanto seeds was Bowman vs Monsanto, in which SCOTUS unanimously determined that Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman was a ‘seed thief.’ The justices unanimously rejected the Indiana soybean farmer’s argument that the company’s patent “exhausted” when he purchased seeds from a grain elevator to plant on his farm. The Court affirmed a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, observing that, if purchasers were allowed to replicate an invention, there would be a mismatch between invention and reward and the patent would afford little protection to the inventor. The ruling affirmed that the act of growing a crop of seeds is “making” those seeds, and is covered under patent law.

Related article:  Claim that Monsanto 'secretly influenced' glyphosate research prompts Health Canada to reevaluate Roundup safety

The unanimous ruling written by Justice Elena Kagan hinted at the deception at the center of Bowman’s actions and argument:

The exhaustion doctrine does not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto’s permission (either express or implied). And that is precisely what Bowman did. He took the soybeans he purchased home; planted them in his fields at the time he thought best; applied glyphosate to kill weeds (as well as any soy plants lacking the Roundup Ready trait); and finally harvested more (many more) beans than he started with. That is how “to ‘make’ a new product,” to use Bowman’s words, when the original product is a seed.

As Layla Katiraee writing for the Genetic Literacy Project has reported, the debate over whether Monsanto has ever sued a farmer who unknowingly used Monsanto’s seeds or whose fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s products was laid to rest in 2013 in the court case known as OSGATA vs Monsanto.

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and others had filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in an effort to invalidate the company’s patents because of alleged fears of Monsanto suing farmers if crops were inadvertently cross-pollinated. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the case, noting there was no case or controversy because Monsanto had not taken any action or even suggested taking any action against any of the plaintiffs. OSGATA conceded that Monsanto had never threatened to sue them.

According to the court, plaintiffs had “overstate[d] the magnitude of [Monsanto’s] patent enforcement,” noting that Monsanto’s average of roughly 13 lawsuits per year “is hardly significant when compared to the number of farms in the United States, approximately two million.” The court ruling ended with this statement: “the appellants have alleged no concrete plans or activities to use or sell greater than trace amounts of modified seed, and accordingly fail to show any risk of suit on that basis. The appellants therefore lack an essential element of standing.”

(3) Monsanto sells “Terminator” seeds

Monsanto has never commercialized a biotech trait that resulted in sterile – or “Terminator” – seeds. Through modern biotechnology, it may be possible to develop crops that will not produce viable offspring seeds. Sterile seed technology, dubbed “terminator technology” in the popular press, is one type of gene-use restriction technology in which seed produced by a crop will not grow. Monsanto made a public commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops.

This pernicious myth has been kept alive almost single-handedly by anti-GMO philosopher and activist Vandana Shiva and others, who have been repeating this lie for years. Here she promotes her recent campaign Occupy the Seed

[T]he minute seeds stop being the seeds of renewal and starts being the seeds of death- like the terminator technology, creating sterile seeds, patented technology that makes it illegal for farmers to save and exchange seed, we get scarcity, that is why a quarter million Indian farmers have committed suicide. We’ve got to save the seeds of life…the seeds of freedom.

This Terminator seed myth fits well into the anti-GMO worldview that nasty capitalists led by mega-villain Monsanto are out to screw the world. It has proved very effective at stirring opposition to genetic engineering in Africa and Asia, where the GM technology is most needed.

(4) Monsanto only serves non-GMO and organic foods in its cafeterias

Originating with an article in Britain’s Independent in 1999, and now widely perpetrated by ant-science ‘natural products’ purveyors like Joseph Mercola, anti-GMO activists often state that Monsanto has banned foods with GM ingredients in its company cafeteria. It’s just not true. Monsanto does not have a private organic farm to serve executives or its employees.

“The food in our cafeterias is no different than what you’d find in most cafeterias, restaurants or supermarkets—some of it is made from GM crops and some of it isn’t,” Monsanto writes on its website. “We don’t go out of our way to have either GM or non-GM food in our cafeteria, with the exception of occasional specialty meals that showcase food grown with our seeds.” In fact, Monsanto often features its GM products on its company cafeteria menu, such as during corn harvesting season when GMO sweet corn is widely available.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter




18 thoughts on “Monsanto in the anti-GMO crosshairs: Fair or foul?”

  1. I have no disagreement with the content, but a small style point which might have unintended effects – labelling the anti-GMO campaign groups as “far left” -even if it’s true- implies that you’re right-wing, or implies that pro biotech (or just not indiscriminately ideologically anti-) is ‘right wing’. It might be better to avoid that whole can of worms if you don’t have to open it.

    Why the anti-GMO campaign groups are wrong is because they are a) totally mistaken, b) intentionally ignoring counter-evidence, etc. Whether they’re right or left wing politically in general is not essentially relevant, and mentioning it in this context may not be useful.

    If the aim is to convince people who’re leaning the other way but not totally fixed (they’re an incredibly rare category of people!), it might be more effective to avoid any social identity markers which could make them perceive you as belonging to another social group, so be less inclined to consider the main content of the article. This is important because in reality most people more or less do not make their decisions based on evidence or reason but on social instinct and identity. (‘Cultural Cognition’ theory).

  2. sadly the “answer” to claim #1 was either intentionally misleading or lacking in rigour. You present Monsanto as just one seed company among thousands? Seriously? Monsanto is not just one of many. It has an extraordinarily large control of the GM market – especially in the US where it almost totally dominates corn and soybean GM seed supplies and there are genuine concerns over the wisdom of allowing this sort of corporate control to happen. I am not suggesting this makes Monsanto “evil” but ignoring this situation – which “is” what claim #1 is really about – undermines the credibility of the article for me.

    • I guess I don’t get your point when you use the word “control” and hint that this “control” is somehow not wise–or could or should be stopped. Monsanto has zero “control” over the US seed market. Any farmer at any point can buy any seed he/she wants. This is not like ATT controlling the phone market years ago. Farmers willingly choose their seeds because they provide benefits that exceed the costs. Monsanto, like Apple and Google and Starbucks, turns out seeds that are in high demand. It doesn’t own the market; if/when competitors develop seeds whose cost/benefit ratio makes those seeds a better buy, their market share will go up. The fact that farmers like their product and consumers benefit dramatically from that hardly seems like an “evil” development. What’s the concern here? Farmers can always switch to a less productive seed; heck, that’s what organic farmers do, by choice, to meet their ideological criteria to grow organic.

  3. “Monsanto, like Apple and Google and Starbucks, turns out seeds that are in high demand.” Jon: smoke is smoke, so can you be a bit more clear about what is in YOUR pipe little buddy..?

  4. History of PCBs:

    •Swann Chemical Company (Monsanto 1935)

    •1933 23 of 24 workers acne like
    eruptions on their skin

    •Loss of energy, appetite, libido

    •1937 Study in Journal of Industrial
    Hygiene and Toxicology links PCBs to liver damage

  5. You forgot the important truths. Wow!!!!! How pathetic your one sided argument is. You forgot the deformed children of Vietnam from Agent Orange. You forgot the rBGH and the cronyism that allowed it to be passed through the FDA. You forgot PCB and the pollution dumped into Aniston Alabama. But lucky for you I’m about to destroy your self improving ignorance.

  6. Organochlorines

    •DDT, DES, Dioxin, PCBs

    •0.2% of Chemicals in Nature

    •15,000 Manufactured Commercially

    •Household Cleaners, Plastic Wraps, Plastic Containers,
    Children’s Toys, Cars, Shoes, TVs, Water Supplies, Pools

    •Pesticides, Herbicides, Petrochemicals

    •Linked to Cancer: Carcinogenic

    •Endocrine System


    •Fetal Growth and Development

    •Immune System

    •Behavior, Intelligence, and Mood


    •Known as “one of the most toxic substances known to humans”
    and one form of it is, “the most potent carcinogen ever tested.”

    •Byproduct of many industrial chemical reactions

    –Waste incineration, bleaching of pulp/paper, smelting

    •Stored in Adipose Tissue

    •Component in Agent Orange (Monsanto)

    •1985 EPA risk assessment showed cancer in animals

    •Dow Chemical Company

    –40 million tons of Chlorine a year

  7. 2006 National Academy of Science

    •Evaluation of the EPA Reassessment of Dioxin and Dioxin
    like organochlorines

    –Tumor Development

    –Birth Defects

    –Reproductive Abnormalities

    –Immune Dysfunction

    –Dermatological Disorders

    –A Plethora of other Adverse Effects

    •Dow lobbies congress, fakes scientific research, pays
    supposed “Experts” to manipulate media and public perception, and creates front
    organizations to protect it’s ability to use toxic chemicals

    –“Each of these is armed with lawyers and lobbyists who
    daily stroll the corridors of Congress, the EPA and the White House,
    influencing public policy in ways unimaginable, and inaccessible, to ordinary
    citizens. Each of these has a public relations budget, and staff to write op eds,
    testify before Congress or the EPA, appear on news shows as ‘experts’, speak to
    civic groups.” Jack Weinberg 1995

  8. rBGH

    •Banned in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan


    –Cancer – Colon, Breast, Prostate

    –Early onset of puberty in Females


    –50% increase in lameness

    –25% increase in udder infections (Yummy: Puss)

    •Monsanto suing Oakhurst Dairy

    –“Our Farmer’s Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones.”

  9. General Accounting Office

    •EPA’s Science Advisory Board Panels: Improved Policies
    and Procedures Needed to Ensure Independence and Balance. July 16, 2001

    –“According to GAO, EPA fails to provide for adequate
    determinations of conflict of interest when panels are formed, does not obtain
    sufficient information to evaluate conflicts of interest, fails to obtain
    appropriate information on financial disclosure forms, fails to review
    disclosure forms in a timely fashion, and fails to adequately disclose
    potential conflicts of interest to the public.”

    •EPA Panel to Evaluate 1,3 Butadiene

    •Found “risk of exposure to 1,3 Butadiene be significantly

    •These findings are contradictory to other scientific bodies

    •Studies show higher incidence of leukemia in workers
    exposed to 1,3 Butadiene

    •13 on the panel

    •4 previously worked for chemical companies or industry
    supported research organizations

    •1 directly for a company that produces 1,3 Butadiene

    •1 Panel Member led an industry funded study on 1,3 Butadiene

    •2 owned stock in companies that produce 1,3 Butadiene

    •6 of the 13 had conflicts of interest


    •Rubber, Nylon, Paint

    •Chemical Plants, Automobiles

    •Known Carcinogen

    •Can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, decreased blood
    pressure, headache, fainting

    •Can affect blood, brain, eyes, heart, kidney, lung, nose
    and throat

    •Animal Studies have shown birth defects

  10. Monsanto in High Places

    Michael Taylor

    •Attorney who for a Decade worked for law firm King &
    Spaulding which represented Monsanto

    •1991 Deputy Commissioner for Policy at FDA

    •Favored not labeling rBGH-treated Cow Products

    •Wrote FDA’s rBGH labeling guidelines

    •1994 US Agriculture Department Food-Safety Program

    •Back to Monsanto Vice President for Public Policy

    •“He is the quintessential revolving door.”, Marion Nestle,
    Professor Nutrition New York University

    •New Deputy Commissioner for Foods at FDA

    Margaret Miller

    •Monsanto Chemical Laboratory Supervisor

    •Today FDA’s Deputy Director of Human Food Safety and
    Consultative Services

    •When at Monsanto wrote report to FDA concerning rBGH in 1989

    •Immediately left and went to work at the FDA

    •In charge of?
    Assessing the very paper on rBGH, that she wrote!!!!!!

    •Justice Clarence Thomas attorney for Monsanto in the 1970’s

    –Wrote Majority opinion allowing plant seeds to be patented
    from Genetically modified crops

    •Dr. Michael Friedman was deputy commissioner of FDA before
    hired as senior vice president of Monsanto

    •Donald Rumsfeld (former Secretary of Defense) CEO of G.D.
    Searle & Co. made 12 million when Searle was sold to…you guessed it
    Monsanto 1985

  11. So easy you forget the truth and you’re paid to write one-sided anti-science articles. You think you’re FOR science????? You twit you’re FOR your paycheck. Like so many other fake pseudo-scientists getting fat paychecks for fake worthless research. That’s NOT science. Your a bunch of quacks that is it. To you the world is flat and you’re gonna burn at the stake anyone who questions you’re false religion. I just gave you science. Real science you ignore. Look at your pathetic failures. Look at your fat sick kids. Look at your brain dead offspring with no nutrition to build their complex brains and complex body. You pretend to know far more then you really do. You paint with broad strokes to limit real debate about a new science of which you are still learning about. The truth is you don’t have a god damn clue. Just like the sick assholes that gave us the cronyism I mentioned below.

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