Depending on whom you trust, genetically modified crops could be a miracle, an apocalypse or something more mundane. Although there’s scant evidence that GM food causes serious health effects, critics say most of the studies sponsored by St. Louis–based Monsanto and other bio-agricultural firms have been biased and those same companies have stymied independent research. Last year, French scientists claimed rats fed only Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn had abnormally high rates of tumors, but once their study’s methodology received a cursory glance, they were all but laughed out of the scientific community.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding its products, there’s a consensus about Monsanto: It is a behemoth with enough profit and clout to exist above the law. Monsanto’s bullying of farmers was at issue in Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association v. Monsanto. The court case involved organic farmers who wanted to grow crops clear of Monsanto seed genes—a difficult endeavor since up to 98 percent of seeds for some conventional crops contain those genes. Avoiding even accidental contamination involves costly measures such as testing seeds and creating buffers between crops and neighboring farms.
Still, the farmers worried that if trace amounts of patented seeds were found in their crops, not only would their organic product be ruined but Monsanto could sue for infringement. The company said it wouldn’t sue for “trace” contamination but refused to sign an agreement to that effect. So the farmers—citing 144 patent-infringement cases Monsanto had brought against farmers (along with 700 settlements) between 1997 and 2010—sued the company preemptively, asking the court to declare their farming to be infringement-free. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that Monsanto’s assurance that it wouldn’t sue meant no judicial action was needed. The court also noted Monsanto’s refusal to swear off litigation over accidental contamination. Had the court ruled against Monsanto, the company might have had to abide by the decision. That’s no longer the case. On the emergency budget bill that avoided a government shutdown last spring, a rider (known as the Monsanto Protection Act) was added that prevents federal courts from halting the sale of GM seeds.
Monsanto’s ostensible regulator isn’t the only government body that appears to feel the company is above the law. In November, news broke that the Department of Justice had ended a two-year investigation of the seed industry for possible antitrust violations, with nary an indictment. The investigation likely came about because of price increases, with soybean seed and corn seed prices rising 108 percent and 135 percent from 2001 to 2010. (Those jumps are more than five times the rise in the consumer price index for the same period.) Prices alone are not enough to prove antitrust violations, and the DOJ might have had good reason to throw away two years of work. (A DOJ spokesperson told Mother Jones the decision occurred because of “marketplace developments” but did not elaborate.)
Perhaps the DOJ should have outsourced its investigation to Total Intelligence Solutions, the private intelligence company owned by Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Monsanto paid TIS more than $200,000 in 2008 and 2009. The Nation uncovered e-mails from TIS that describe a meeting in which the two companies discussed using TIS employees to infiltrate anti-Monsanto activist groups. A statement on Monsanto’s website denies anyone was hired for this task, adding that the company does “not condone that type of behavior.” One could be forgiven for having seeds of doubt.