Neil Young. Last month, I heard this rock “legend” was releasing an entire album of new music attacking Monsanto. I didn’t address Young or his album because his accusations were, quite frankly, nothing new and others did a great job addressing them. In fact, if you’re interested you can read Monsanto’s response, a LinkedIn post by Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley, and a very nice piece published in the New York Post. (If you know of others, I encourage you to share links in the comments!)
Young wasn’t satisfied with just releasing a provocative album aimed at the most vilified company in the world. Instead, he’s continued to use his social media accounts to continue the vicious attacks, though this time the attacks hit a little closer to home.
The Tale of Michael White
Young’s latest rant against Monsanto included a video for an upcoming “documentary.” In his post, Young states:
Monsanto is a corporation with great wealth, now controlling over 90% of soybean and corn growth in America. Family farms have been replacedby giant agri corp farms across this great vast country we call home. Farm aid and other organizations have been fighting the losing battle against this for 30 years now.
On the human side, the film I would like you to see tells the story of a farming family in America, but the same thing is happening around the world. It is a story that takes 10 minutes of your time to see. It is a simple human one, telling the heartbreaking story of one man who fought the corporate behemoth Monsanto, and it illustrates why I was moved to write The Monsanto Years.
The film presents a rare opportunity to hear from the source as Mr. White is one of only four farmers who is still legally allowed to speak about his case as all the others have been effectively silenced.
The accompanying video, a preview for the “documentary” Seed Fear, starts out with an elderly man, who we find out is Michael White, walking to the grave of his father, informing the viewer that his father was sued by Monsanto for saving seeds. The White tells us that his father was afraid, even after the lawsuit was over, that Monsanto was going to come after him. White reveals that Monsanto sued 7 farmers in his area alone, and threatened to sue another 75. He even goes so far as to accuse Monsanto of setting farmers up so the company can sue them later. And there’s a point he accuses Monsanto of assassinating people…
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, White seems to leave out a few key details to his story (oh, I’m sure the full “documentary” will have those in there; right?). While taking a few cheap shots at Monsanto, Young and White’s largest gripe is Monsanto’s use of patents to protect the company’s technology and genetically modified seeds. Unfortunately, and (again) not surprisingly, White and Young seem to miss a few key facts here, too.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a patent is a property right, issued to the inventor of something, that usually lasts for 20 years. A patent right generally gives the holder “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.” There are 3 types of patents – utility, design, and plants. Monsanto’s patents fall in the last category of plant patents, which are issued “to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of a plant.”
There are also other types of intellectual property rights, such as copyrights and trademarks, with which people are generally more familiar.
Yes, Monsanto has patents over their biotech plants. When farmers purchase seed containing that technology, they are asked to sign technology agreements. In a nutshell, the technology agreements state that the farmer recognizes the technology in the seeds they are buying is protected and they make certain promises to Monsanto (or whichever biotech company) indicating they won’t do certain things. One of those promises is that the farmer will not save the crop and replant it again the following year.
That last point is usually the problem for some people – farmers cannot save biotech seeds. We hear this complaint over and over again from those opposed to biotechnology. But here’s the thing: farmers don’t want to save seeds! Well before GMOs were a thing and long before farmers were signing technology agreements, the practice of saving one year’s crop for the following year’s seed had virtually come to an end. The second generation seed does not have the genetic quality that the first generation seed contains; this is especially true when it comes to hybrid varieties. In general, the cost of buying new seeds each year is well worth the price of having seeds with the highest quality genetic traits that can produce the best crop possible.
Furthermore, if a farmer wants to save his seed, he can choose to purchase seeds without any biotechnology traits and not sign a technology agreement. There is no one forcing farmers to purchase GMO seed and anyone that tells you otherwise is lying.
The Rest of the Michael White Story
Remember how I mentioned that there were some key details missing in preview for Seed Fear? Let’s cover some of those facts….
All of the information I’m about to put here is found in this court document from the actual lawsuit. I realize the document itself has a fair amount of legalese, but I think it can be easily explained. Monsanto’s lawyers moved for summary judgment in the case. This is a fairly standard procedure where one or both parties ask the court to enter judgment in their favor, before going through the expense of a trial, because the evidence all supports their right to recover. In the document, you’ll see that the magistrate judge took a look at the case and suggested that summary judgment be granted for Monsanto. The district court judge didn’t completely agree, but that’s okay and happens most of the time. The important point in the document isn’t the procedure or the ruling; rather, take a look at the facts of the case, which give us a much bigger picture.
The important facts that you find in the Factual Background section of the document paint a clearer picture of the case. One farmer got hold of a few bags of Round-Up Ready soybeans without signing Monsanto’s technology agreement. After the soybeans were planted and harvested, that farmer brought to soybeans to White so he could clean them and get them ready to use as soybean seeds, which would normally be against the technology agreement. The farmer then paid White for cleaning the soybeans by providing him with 6 to 8 bags of the Round-Up Ready soybeans. White knew that the seeds were biotech seeds, knew he was supposed to buy such seeds, and knew he was supposed to sign an agreement for using them. Nonetheless, White started using them as seed and continued to do so for several years. He also started to sell the harvested Round-Up Ready soybeans to other growers. After about 5 years, he started to hear that Monsanto was enforcing their patent rights and he decided it was time to quit.
As you can read in the linked document, Monsanto did catch wind of White’s operation and allegedly had private investigators approach White and asked him to sell them some of the patented seeds. At this point, the factual background gets a little more disputed and there was probably some legal posturing to present the facts a certain way.
In any case, White knew about the patent protection on the seeds, though he claims he thought these particular Round-Up Ready soybeans were immune to the patent, but chose to use and sell the Round-Up Ready seeds anyway. He ended up settling the case with Monsanto. Whether he knew it or not, White replanted and sold patented soybeans. Monsanto tried to enforce their property right. It wasn’t about going after an old man, it wasn’t about being a bully, and it wasn’t about sending fear throughout agriculture. It was about enforcing a property right.
Farmers Aren’t Afraid of Monsanto
All of that being said, farmers do NOT live in constant fear of being sued by Monsanto. The presence of Monsanto does not invoke fear and trembling in our soul. We have not all been silenced by the company.
The response is the same to any other of these ridiculous assertions.
While it is true that Monsanto has a patent for its biotech crops – and a right to enforce those property rights, regular farmers are not living in constant fear of receiving a court summons from the company. We sign the technology agreement with Monsanto each year, and don’t really lose any sleep over it.
Monsanto has responded to these allegations by stating:
If a suspected instance of a farmer violating our technology agreements or patent rights is reported to us, we do not automatically assume a farmer has intentionally acted in an unethical or criminal manner. The burden of proof is not on the farmer. Instead, the burden of proof is on Monsanto to investigate the legitimacy of these claims and to resolve the issue as quickly and fairly as possible, which usually does not lead to litigation.
I realize some people won’t accept that, because they won’t accept anything the company has to say. If that’s the case, that’s okay. You probably aren’t open to a lot of rationale thinking anyway. But consider this: Monsanto’s customers are farmers. There aren’t many companies, if any, that are successful by threatening, harassing, and intimidating their customers. Farmers have choices and if Monsanto’s reputation were true, we certainly would choose to purchase our seeds elsewhere.
To put it in proper perspective, according to a statement by Monsanto, of the hundreds of thousands of farmers that plant the GMO seeds each year, Monsanto has only sued a fraction of 1% of those farmers since 1977.
Consider the Source
I can’t wrap up this article without making a very important point – something we should always be mindful of! This video is thick and heavy with well-scripted and carefully written dialogue that makes it obvious a communications professional wrote it. White uses words like “big corporations,” “funny-suited lawyers,” “agricultural corporation,” “weapon,” “seed control,” and “love of money.” You’ll also notice that Mr. White’s farm looks like a perfectly nostalgic vintage farm – it’s perfectly aged reminding us of a better time.
Trust me, it was all staged to look like that for you. The filmmakers want the video to make you sympathetic to White, feel bad for his story, and want revenge for his father. Quite frankly, it’s staged better than a lot of those Lifetime movies.
It is so important to pay attention to those details and figure out what the producer wants to sell you. Because they do have an agenda and they are trying to sell it.
Bernie Mooney says
White’s father was eventually dropped from the lawsuit, at Monsanto’s request, when it was found he had no role in the scheme
Sarah Schultz says
I will NEVER understand why when celebrities jump on these political anti-GMO and GMO labeling bandwagons, why don’t then “get on the ground” and the “front lines” and TALK to farmers whom these potential legislation changes will affect? Young talks to ONE farmer who had a riff with Monsanto? What about the hundreds of thousands who haven’t? I’m getting really sick of celebrities trying to tell us how to farm.
J.D. Goodwin says
Amanda, this post is excellent. I’m going to bookmark it and keep it as a reference. It explained the situation thoroughly, and you gave an enlightening viewpoint from the legal perspective. I feel a little smarter for having read it. Thank you.
Maybe Neal has smoked too many Organic plants over the years.