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Unfair South American competition or Monsanto monopolization?

by David Dechant and Troy Roush

(Feb. 1, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Last summer, according to Indiana Farm Bureau president Don Villwock, "Farmers everywhere wanted to talk about cheaper Roundup and no tech fees on Roundup Ready soybeans in South America." That’s what he told the Indiana Prairie Farmer magazine in an article called, " ‘Unfair’ South American Competition." Prairie Farmer also interviewed three key Monsanto employees for the article, who gave the Monsanto point of view.

While we commend the Indiana Prairie Farmer for bringing the issue up, especially since it relies on corporate advertising revenue, we think " ‘Unfair’ Monsanto Monopolization" would be a more appropriate name for the article. Following is our interpretation of "Monsanto talk," as well as our take on the questions and answers.

The interview begins with Monsanto describing the 1996 introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans in Argentina and complaining that it lacks of adequate intellectual property protection there. Monsanto says it "filed for a patent prior to launch, but patent laws changed during launch, and our application was not approved."

If there were patent laws that changed during Monsanto’s 1996 launch of RR soybeans, it is very hard to find any information that would verify that. However, in 1994, Argentina did adopt what is known as the "1978 UPOV act." UPOV, a.k.a. "The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants" is an intergovernmental organization, whose aim is the protection of new varieties of plants through intellectual property rights.


Fifty countries have signed on to one of three UPOV acts. The strictest one is the 1991 act, which allows seed companies to prohibit farmers from saving seed. However, Argentina adopted the 1978 act, which allows farmers to save seed. This is in addition to Argentina’s own seed law, ley 20.247, adopted in 1973, which is quite similar to the U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act. It allows farmers to save seed but disallows brownbagging, that being the unauthorized sale of seed grown from proprietary varieties.

Monsanto talk: "lack of intellectual property protection."
Interpretation: "cannot prevent farmers from saving seed."

If Argentina’s current seed laws were enforced, brownbagging would diminish and Monsanto’s seed sales would increase enormously. However, Monsanto wants everyone to believe that without patents and without being able to prohibit farmers from saving seed for their own use, it has no protection whatsoever. The fact is that when seed is reasonably priced, seed saving only accounts for 25percent of the market, as there are advantages to buying seed that has been professionally grown. Nonetheless, the fact that farmers can save seed if they wish is what keeps seed prices reasonable.

Next, in response to a question whether Monsanto has any other traits that might fit South America, it says it’s not introducing any new ones into Argentina unless it is confident its Intellectual Property Rights will be respected there. On one hand Monsanto says its Bt soybean technology is patented under new Argentine patent law. But, on the other hand, Monsanto says it displays its Bt soybeans only inside of enclosed glass displays at South American farm shows. This means that if Monsanto does have patents on genes, if not on seed itself, it must not be very confident that those patents can be used to prohibit seed saving.

Monsanto talk: "we won’t release Bt soybeans there until there is a process fair and equitable to both farmers and Monsanto."
Interpretation: "we hope no one notices that we just introduced RR cotton there last year."
Alternate interpretation: "we want to prevent farmers from saving seed so we can siphon off any gains in producer welfare."

Moreover, Monsanto is willing and eager to get its RR soybeans into Brazil, and Bt cotton into India, Thailand, Indonesia, China, etc., places where it will not be able to prohibit seed saving. Monsanto says Brazil’s seed laws are stronger than Argentina’s. But, if that were true, it wouldn’t be trying to develop traitor technology to force Brazilian farmers to buy only Monsanto brand glyphosate.

A June 1999 article in the Argentine farm magazine, La Chacra, describes the soybean boom in Brazil. It quotes Brenno Hinnah, an executive with the seed company, "Semillas Petrovina," as saying, "I believe Monsanto doesn't want to happen here (Brazil) the same thing that happened in Argentina, where it lost a lot of market share because of the large number of generic glyphosate products. They are looking at a way to mix with Roundup an element- it could be a co-adjuvant - that would permit that RR beans can only be sprayed with this product."

What that means is that generic glyphosate would either kill or damage RR soybeans containing the traitor gene, as only Monsanto brand Roundup with a special adjuvant will activate the soybean plant’s resistance to Roundup. This is Monsanto’s and other seed companies’ ultimate plan, as they won’t be able to prohibit seed saving around the world as Monsanto has done in the United States and in Canada.

Monsanto and U.S.DA talk: "gene-use restriction technology."
Interpretation: "traitor gene technology."

In any case, it’s unclear whether Monsanto is ready to go with this traitor technology, but it is still extremely anxious to get RR soybeans commercialized in Brazil. In fact, towards the end of a rather long agweb.com story about how Brazil is expanding soybean production, Iowa farmer Tim Burrack says, "We heard that Monsanto offered the 34 farmers in that region $350 million to develop and promote the system."

Note: these are mega-farmers, each of whom farms thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of acres.


With this in mind, one can’t help but wonder whether Monsanto’s real motive was and still is to get its GM soybeans into all of the world’s soybean supply, thus making it very difficult or nearly impossible for the EU and other customers to acquire non-GM soybeans.

Indiana Prairie Farmer goes on to question Monsanto about the discrepancy in glyphosate (Roundup) price between the U.S. and Argentina. Monsanto says its Roundup went off- patent in South America ten years ago. What it doesn’t say is that Roundup went off-patent almost everywhere in the world in 1991, and if not for an additional and questionable U.S. patent on the isopropyl amine salt of glyphosate in 1983, it would have expired in the U.S. in 1991, too. It appears few, if any, other countries recognized the 1983 patent.

Monsanto talk: "South American patent expiration has eroded Roundup’s value."
Interpretation: "Unfortunately, we have to compete there"

When asked how it is helping to keep U.S. farmers competitive, Monsanto says that in addition to its "Roundup Rewards" program, it is identifying Asgrow and DeKalb (Monsanto owned seed companies) soybean varieties with traits for high oil and/or protein. Monsanto calls these varieties "Processor Preferred" because processors might be willing to pay a premium for them. However, while the article infers that U.S. farmers will have exclusive use to such varieties, Monsanto already is promoting similar "Soja Alto Profat" in Argentina on its website.


Monsanto talk: "Processor Preferred varieties"
Spanish translation: "Soja Alto Profat"
English translation: "High Oil and/or Protein Soybeans"

Monsanto also says it has donated a few tools to the United Soybean Board, the soybean research and promotion board which farmers fund through money checked off (mandatory in most soybean growing states) from their soybean sales. One such tool is genetic marker technology that identifies low palmitic acid. The other tool is technology that helps researchers understand the soybean genome. In any case, U.S. farmers shouldn’t look at this as a salvation from low prices. Brazil, which is very export customer orientated, is also working on a "better bean."

Monsanto talk: "donation"
Interpretation: "watch out for a Trojan Horse"

The Soybean Board should be very careful with these donations. It should ensure that growers can save for their own use seed that Board money helps to pay for, including seed with Monsanto’s donated technology. Monsanto should not object to that if, indeed, it really did donate the technology.

The USB also needs to ensure that such donations do not compromise its first and foremost responsibility to the soybean farmers. There is much speculation that corporate donations do compromise the judgment of grower groups that accept them.

Finally, if farmers really want to level the global playing field, they would do well to ensure that the corporations who sell them inputs or buy their crops are competitive. And, in the case of seed, that doesn’t happen by taking away someone else’s right to save seed. It happens by restoring our right to save seed and fighting the monopolization of genetic resources.

David Dechant and Troy Roush are Colorado and Indiana farmers, respectively.