Saving seeds can lead to fines, jail for some farmers

Friday, January 14, 2005

Monsanto Co.'s "seed police" snared soy farmer Homan McFarling in 1999, and the company is demanding he pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for alleged technology piracy.

McFarling's sin? He saved seed from one harvest and replanted it the following season, a revered and ancient agricultural practice.

"My daddy saved seed. I saved seed," said McFarling, 62, who still grows soy on the 5,000 acre family farm in Mississippi and is fighting the agribusiness giant in court.

Saving Monsanto's seeds, genetically engineered to kill bugs and resist weed sprays, violates provisions of the company's contracts with farmers.

Since 1997, Monsanto has filed similar lawsuits 90 times in 25 states against 147 farmers and 39 agriculture companies, according to a report issued Thursday by The Center for Food Safety, a biotechnology foe.

In a similar case a year ago, Tennessee farmer Kem Ralph was sued by Monsanto and sentenced to eight months in prison after he was caught lying about a truckload of cotton seed he hid for a friend.

Ralph's prison term is believed to be the first criminal prosecution linked to Monsanto's crackdown. Ralph has also been ordered to pay Monsanto more than $1.7 million.

Agronomy specialist Gerald Bryan with the southeast region of the University of Missouri Extension Office in Jackson said that a small number of farmers in the area probably do re-use genetically engineered seeds. Around here, that's primarily Round-up ready soybeans, he said, which make the seed resistant to the weed-killing spray.

"Most people don't do that," he said. "A few do, but they know they're risking being detected with it and fined or even involved in a lawsuit."

Bryan said that Monsanto has raised the prices of their products, which may be causing some farmers to consider re-using the seeds.

"People who say they don't know they're not to re-use the seeds are lying," he said. "Because it's written right on the bag. But the Monsanto police are nothing new. They've been coming around for several years."

The company itself says it annually investigates about 500 "tips" that farmers are illegally using its seeds and settles many of those cases before a lawsuit is filed.

In this way, Monsanto is attempting to protect its business from pirates in much the same way the entertainment industry does when it sues underground digital distributors exploiting music, movies and video games.

In the process, it has turned farmer on farmer and sent private investigators into small towns to ask prying questions of friends and business acquaintances.

Some 200 million acres of the world's farms grew biotech crops last year, an increase of 20 percent from 2003, according to a separate report released Wednesday.

Staff writer Scott Moyers contributed to this report.

Many of the farmers Monsanto has sued say, as McFarling claims, that they didn't read the company's technology agreement close enough. Others say they never received an agreement in the first place.

The company counters that it sues only the most egregious violations and is protecting the 300,000 law-abiding U.S. farmers who annually pay a premium for its technology. Soy farmers, for instance, pay a "technology fee" of about $6.50 an acre each year.

Some 85 percent of the nation's soy crop is genetically engineered to resist Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, a trait many farmers say makes it easier to weed their fields and ultimately cheaper to grow their crops.

"It's a very efficient and cost-effective way to raise soy beans and that's why the market has embraced it," said Ron Heck, who grows 900 acres of genetically engineered soy beans in Perry, Iowa.

Heck, who is also chairman of the American Soybean Association, said he doesn't mind buying new seed each year and appreciates Monsanto's crackdown on competitors who don't pay for their seed.

"You can save seed if you want to use the old technology," Heck said.

Staff writer Scott Moyers contributed to this story.

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