Seeds and Justice

By Bridget Tobin, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

     In January, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal from organic farmers in the U.S. and Canada to challenge the Monsanto Company’s patents on genetically modified seeds. Farmers in Brazil have faced even greater difficulties recently trying to gain control over their own seeds, especially soybean seeds.

Monsanto Co. is the world’s largest biotech seed company in the world, and Brazil is the second-largest producer of genetically modified crops (behind only the U.S.). Though, Monsanto has actually seen its seeds and traits sales fall by 5% over the last few years, the net profits have improved by 9%. The major improvement in this year’s first-quarterly earnings report comes from two major features around the Monsanto’s markets and how it sells seeds to farmers, as well as what types of seeds have become competitive in the global industrialized agriculture system.

Firstly, the continuing demand for Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicides and the impact of the company’s segment for agricultural productivity alone, grossed an increase of profits by 50% and increase of sales by 23%. Secondly, the popularity of soybeans and soy oilseed has influenced Monsanto to shift its attentions away from corn products, that usually account for 63% of seed sales in the first quarter and turn instead to soybean seeds (usually 16% of sales).

The Intacta RR2 PRO soybean trait was a highly regarded technological improvement that Monsanto launched last year and the corresponding seeds Monsanto wishes to sell with this trait have faced a renewed string of challenges from small and conventional farmers alike who feel an increasing pressure give in to Monsanto’s desire for agricultural control or lose their farms altogether.

The Case of Rio Grande do Sul Patents

Roundup Ready was introduced to the Brazilian soy farmers about 15 years ago. The Roundup Ready seeds were in fact smuggled into the state of Rio Grande do Sul from Argentina; and by 2005 there were already three-quarters of the soya crops that had been grown from the smuggled seeds. The benefit of Roundup Ready seeds is that they grow to become resistant to herbicide glyphosate so the farmers are able to control weeds and spray their fields without damaging the crops.

     Growing of genetically modified crops was legalized in Brazil in 2003 and since this time the U.S. company Monsanto has tried to collect 2% of the sales of the farmers for royalties. In response, by 2009 a consortium of farming syndicates had brought a legal case against Monsanto, challenging this levy as an “unjust tax,” especially for formers that sell soybeans as non-GM.

These farmers have had to face a 3% levy if Monsanto finds after testing their crops, that they have in fact been contaminated with Roundup Ready. However, contamination is extremely difficult to prevent because conventional and GM soya beans are hard to keep separated.

The farmers’ first battle was in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. They initially emerged successful as the judge, Giovanni Conti ruled that Monsanto’s levy was in fact illegal. He ordered that royalties collected since 2004 should be returned to the farmers. However, Monsanto had filed a separate case with the federal government at the Brazilian Supreme Court of Justice in 2011 and additionally chose to appeal Conti’s decision to the Justice Tribune of Rio Grande do Sul.

Another success seemed to come right on top of the Conti decision, when the Brazilian Supreme Court of Justice ruled “against Monsanto, deciding unanimously that the ruling by the Justice Tribune of Rio Grande do Sul, once it is made, should apply nationwide” on June 12th, 2012

There is some speculation from biotech researchers that the repayment of these royalties will trigger major budget cuts for important research within the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the full story should be made clear: the Ministry’s affiliate research group, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) has a research partnership with Monsanto. One researcher with EMBRAPA, Elibio Rech told reporters that “Although EMBRAPA has other financial sources, if the collection of royalties is interrupted then $5 million to $10 million dollars will be cut from our budget.”

What is contradictory is that EMBRAPA was the group that tracked the introduction of transgenic soy seeds in Brazil to illegal smuggling activities from Argentina in 1998. They also give information on the current state of GM soy, citing that 85% of the nation’s soybeans are from GM seeds which translates into 62 million acres of GM soybean crops throughout Brazil. This acreage is roughly equivalent to the size of Vietnam or to the state of New Mexico. The Grain That Grew Too Muchauthor Sergio Schlesinger writes, “Transgenic soy occupies 44 percent of land under grain cultivation but represents only 5.5 percent of farm jobs.”

     One of the largest farming syndicates, the Brazilian farmers’ federation Famato made an impactful decision last summer. In July of 2013, Famato dropped their lawsuit against Monsanto for its illegal collection of royalties. The group agreed to a deal in which they had to give up the pursuit of reimbursement for the royalties in return for a discount on the next edition of Roundup Ready seeds, the RR2 soybeans.

The agreement is just another example of how difficult it is to go up against a superpower like Monsanto who was able to play into farmers’ fears that they would be unable to have access to the new RR2 seeds. The RR2 Intacta soy seeds have received a large amount of publicity because they have “stacked genes” that make them resistant to herbicides as well as insects. Meanwhile, the company has now more than doubled its income from the GM soy by avoiding the reimbursements that were expected to cost Monsanto nearly 6.2 billion Euros.  

The Intacta RR2 Soybean

The Intacta RR2 soybeans, according to Monsanto have not been released commercially to producers in Brazil. On February 17th the state of Mato Grosso’s soybean and corn producers’ association, Aprosoja made a statement warning farmers that they could have their crops returned if they or a neighbor use Intacta RR2 seeds. Over two-thirds of exports for soy oilseed is shipped to China, who has not approved the Intacta RR2 variety. Monsanto responded that they would not begin commercial sales of Intacta RR2 until Brazil’s main export markets approved it and would destroy a stockpile of 600,000 sacks of the seeds if this did not happen as expected.

However, Aprosoja reports that Monsanto hands out samples of the seeds and requires farmers to sign a waiver to accept responsibility for any contamination from trying out the seeds. In addition, 500 farmers were given Intacta RR2 to try as a test in 2013 and the seeds were planted next to fields of Roundup Ready soy until the testing period was over and the soybeans were destroyed. Monsanto plans to do more demonstrations of this nature this year, which Aprosoja warns could lead to a large amount of contamination especially since soybeans already have a high likelihood of contamination when being stored or transported.

The Terminator “suicide” seeds

The concept of “terminator” technology has also been a highly debated issue in the realm of food sovereignty for Brazilian farmers. The term refers to Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) which often come in the form of Technology Protection System (TPS) that changes the gene sequence in the plant’s DNA so that it will kill developing plant embryos and force farmers to purchase new seeds each year instead of using seeds from the previous year’s harvest. The technology exists as an extra layer of property rights protection for biotechnology companies, like Monsanto Co. Other companies such as Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont also hold patents on this kind of technology. The TPS technology is currently seeking approval from the Brazilian government. Proponents of the technology think it would help prevent the spread of GMO seeds and pollen in an effort to help conventional farmers.

However, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a worldwide ban on the commercial use of GURTs as well as field testing of the technologies in 2000. The Convention issued a moratorium that was confirmed in 2006 at the UN Conference of Parties 8 with 193 countries in agreement not to allow the technologies. Today, Brazil may be the first to break this moratorium, pending a decision by Brazil’s Judiciary Commission. Centro Ecológico, a coalition of Brazilian NGOs was able to stall this decision until later this month by presenting a petition signed by 34,000 people and organizations to the Brazilian authorities.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to discuss this issue again when it meets this October in South Korea. There is a widespread fear that if Brazil breaks with the moratorium, many other smaller nations will follow and if terminator seeds do become commercial, farmers who choose not to use them will have a very difficult time competing with those who do. The technology also prompts fears that seeds will become sterile and food security will be severely threatened unless farmers agree to continually buy new seeds from Monsanto and others every single year.

Monsanto Is Challenged Across the World

The U.S. faces similar legal disputes between organic farmers and Monsanto. In fact, just over one month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision in favor of Monsanto’s patents. The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) was denied the right to argue in the federal court that the Monsanto patents on their seeds were invalid. The farmers made some headway in the Court of Appeals that prohibited Monsanto from enforcing patent infringement on farmers who had only less than one percent of contamination from GM seeds in their crops. However, the federal court’s decision to deny the right to argue their case, came as a serious blow to OSGATA and all small-time farmers and growers.

The plaintiffs included 83 individual American and Canadian farmers, independent seed companies, and non-GMO agricultural organizations. President of OSGATA, Jim Gettitsen stated after the decision that “The Court of Appeals agreed our case had merit.  However, the safeguards they ordered are insufficient to protect our farms and our families. This high court which gave corporations the ability to patent life forms in 1980, and under Citizens United it 2010 gave corporations the power to buy their way to election victories, has now in 2014 denied farmers the basic right of protecting themselves from the notorious patent bully Monsanto.”

On a brighter side, there have been some more positive results from challenges to Monsanto recently. Monsanto also announced on Feburary 11th of this year that it would accept results from a negative environmental-impact assessment on a major corn production plant that is to be built in Cordoba, Argentina for 1.5 billion peso ($192 million).

The company must begin a new plan that falls in line with the requirements of the assessment, which Monsanto refers to as “new standards.” The Wall Street Journal reported on 2-11-14 that Monsanto’s director for sustainability and corporate affairs for Latin America South said “It will take a month or two to analyze the air, soil, and water at the site and prepare a new assessment.

It is especially important for small and cooperative groups of farmers to make their cases against Monsanto together as that is the only way to make an impact against this corporate giant. The evolution of Monsanto’s interest in soybean production should be watched by all individuals interested in food sovereignty and global trade of food. The sudden trend in soy products has enabled Monsanto to continue reaping massive profits from the farmers in Brazil and elsewhere because it has quickly and aggressively taken control over the very seeds needed to grow soybeans and make soy oilseeds for export.

The significance of Brazil’s 62 million acres of GM soybean fields lies in the shifting power relations that will continue to occur as nations like Brazil, Argentina, India, and China become major soy producers and consumers that compete with the once dominant United States markets and producers. In fact, many analysts predict that Brazil may pass the U.S. in worldwide soybean production and export within the next year, becoming the number one producer worldwide which would have tremendous benefits for Monsanto who boasts an 85% share over the Brazilian soybean market.

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