The nation’s farmers are in the grip of powerful corporations like Monsanto and find it increasingly difficult to plant seeds of their own choosing, giving Big Ag — and genetically engineered crops — a monopoly over the food Americans grow and eat.
That’s one of the many alarming conclusions reached in a comprehensive new report, “Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry.” The report comes from the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, a project of the National Family Farm Coalition that includes 34 farm organizations working to address the impacts of biotechnology in the ever-narrowing marketplace.
The report concludes that farmers are losing access to conventional seeds, losing the freedom to grow conventional crops, and being forced to pay dramatically higher seed prices along the way.
“Farmers are losing access to seeds that they historically had access to, like conventional soybeans,” said Kristina Hubbard, the Montana-based Farmer to Farmer consultant who wrote the report. “The number one priority is making sure that farmers have the seed they need, and that seed production and planting goes on in a fair way. We want to level the playing field.”
As is, the field is tilted sharply, funneling most sales to the world’s giant agribusinesses, Hubbard found.
Monsanto, the world’s number 1 seed developer, “accounts for 60 percent of the corn and soybean seed market,” the report says. “Today, its genetically engineered (GE) traits are planted on more than 80 percent of U.S. corn acres and more than 90 percent of soybean acres.”
The lack of competition in the seed and agriculture industry is so dramatic, it’s even attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Agriculture, which in August announced they would hold public workshops to explore competition issues and potential anti-trust violations. (To offer a comment on the issue, send two paper copies by Dec. 31, 2009, to the Legal Policy Section, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 450 5th Street, N.W., Suite 11700, Washington, D.C. 20001; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In addition, the Associated Press reports that the DOJ has launched an investigation to determine whether Monsanto violated anti-trust law in its bid to dominate the GE crop market. Attorneys general in Iowa and Texas have announced similar probes of their own.
Beyond Monsanto, 10 companies are responsible for about two-thirds of the world’s proprietary seed for major crops, according to the “Out of Hand” report. Proprietary seed is the type that’s patented by a corporation and subject to legal agreements that dictate how farmers use it, dispose of it, or even talk about it.
Here are other report highlights:
— Corporate seed tyranny is the result of weak antitrust law enforcement, Supreme Court decisions, federal law, and mergers and acquisitions. (Click here for an amazing Vanity Fair story about Monsanto by star investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele, who write that Monsanto has relied “on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country.” The company’s “seed police” secretly videotaped and photographed farmers, infiltrated community meetings, and used informants, the story says.)
–As Big Ag gets bigger, small, independent companies are vanishing. “At least 200 independent seed companies have been lost in the last thirteen years alone,” the report says.
–GE seeds are more expensive, leaving farmers with dwindling options at higher prices.
–Corporations have the right to patent biotechnology and plant products, and federal law allows universities to patent inventions that stem from publicly-funded research projects. Both matters need to be reformed, the report says.
To restore independence and seed choice, Farmer to Farmer suggests that the government — among many other things — enact a federal “Farmer Protection Act” that lets farmers negotiate fair contracts.
The goal, says Hubbard, is a competitive marketplace that gives conventional foods a place at the table. Or at least in the field.