Tom Philpott, Grist.Org, May 8, 2007
Monsanto has barreled its way toward dominance over the global seed market with strong-arm tactics and friends in high places.
As evidence of the former, the roguish company once threatened to sue me — then a neophyte blogger with 30 readers — on the most trivial grounds possible. As for the latter, software monopolist Bill Gates, evidently impressed with the way Monsanto tosses around its market girth, has tapped a former Monsanto exec to help lead his foundation’s “Green Revolution” in Africa.
The company wins plenty of battles, but it loses sometimes, too. In fact, it suffered two bitter defeats last week.
No GMO alfalfa for you
Last Thursday, a U.S. district judge upheld a ban on new plantings of a genetically modified alfalfa variety that’s designed to withstand copious lashings of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
Alfalfa is grown nationwide as a perennial fodder crop for livestock. If so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa becomes ubiquitous, farmers would be encouraged to dump huge quantities of Roundup on pastures — a direct attack on plant biodiversity. Worse, it could create “superweeds” resistant to Roundup — at best conjuring up the need for a new and even more fierce herbicide than Roundup, at worst creating an invasive weed that could take over pastures and other fields.
The decision delivers a firm rebuke to the USDA and its matador style of vetting applications for new GMO seed varieties. According to Reuters, the same judge responsible for Thursday’s ruling:
… had issued a preliminary injunction in March, ruling U.S. regulators improperly allowed the commercialization of the biotech alfalfa without a thorough examination of its effects. That marked the first time a federal court overturned USDA approval of a biotech seed and halted planting, according to the Center for Food Safety.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, Monsanto was getting clobbered by a Munich judge, who struck down the giant’s continent-wide patent on GM soybeans.
Hope Shand of the formidable ETC Group previewed the case on Gristmill last week.
It’s worth reading ETC’s report on the ruling in its entirety. The group says that although the patent was due to expire soon anyway, the rejection forms a useful precedent in fighting the seed giant’s attempts to declare ownership over huge swaths of the world’s agricultural genetic heritage.
On Wall Street, Monsanto’s share price has managed to shake off these setbacks, continuing its meteoric rise.
Why? These defeats are puny compared to the company’s long string of easy regulatory victories. Roundup Ready alfalfa may be out of commission for a while — though Reuters reports that 220,000 acres of it have already been planted — but Roundup Ready corn and soy are rampant in the U.S. Midwest and elsewhere, and the biofuel craze is only ramping up demand.