Artwork: Ilargi for the Automatic Earth
The US Supreme Court heard a case on February 19 that is interesting perhaps not even so much because of the topic at hand but more because of the level of absurdity involved. It feels like we warpsped our way into a parallel universe where the laws of nature are entirely different from those on earth.
That is to say, the court should never have been in a position to hear the case, but it has created the legal space for itself, aided and abetted by Congress and the US patent system, to hear it anyway. Because of this we should all ask ourselves: How on earth have we ever allowed things to get this far? What were we thinking, and what were we not, because we were busy doing other things? And finally: how do we get out of this parallel universe and into our own?
I would argue that it's perhaps the US Supreme Court itself (and maybe the US government as a whole) that should be taken to court by the international community, for instance for grossly overstepping its legal boundaries, but let's first look at the case before the court last week.
The original suit, one that involved patent infringement, was filed by chemical conglomerate Monsanto, which has aggressively moved into the food industry in the past few decades with the implicit purpose of using it to sell more chemicals, against Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman.
It is one of a large number, 142, patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses in the US. Monsanto alleges that Mr. Bowman has infringed on one of its patents, the Roundup Ready soybean, by buying cheap(er) "excess" soybeans from a local grain elevator for a late-season planting, which, first, allowed him not to pay the company the full price for its patented seeds, and second, runs counter to its demand that farmers buy new seeds for every planting instead of saving seeds from the previous harvest.
Reading about the case before it came before the court, I found Mr. Bowman's argumentation neither very strong nor very interesting. In fact, he might as well be on Monsanto's payroll. Mr. Bowman knew that many of the seeds he was buying were of Monsanto's Roundup Ready variety, and he had been buying these seeds at full price on previous occasions, even earlier the same year. Which is why he sprayed the late crop in question with another Monsanto product, the Roundup herbicide. The first reports are that the Supreme Court Appears to Defend Patent on Soybean.
"Why in the world,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked, “would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?"
I’ll get back to this, but one thing should be clear: People have spend time and effort, blood sweat and tears, throughout history, to improve seeds. Why would that stop with Monsanto? Because they spend money? Nobody ever had the idea that their improved seeds would be eligible for patents. Along comes the chemical industry, takes the seeds that have undergone all these generations of improvements, changes them a little bit, and voila! owns them outright. No, really.
What Mr. Bowman purports to fight all the way up to the Supreme Court is Monsanto's notion that the patent protection for its seeds "extends for generations down", and granted, that in itself is not a moot point. However, it pales in comparison with the much larger issues at play here. It's part of a far more severe case of insanity that has silently become our reality while we were chowing down the supersized "foods" produced courtesy of Monsanto's seed patents.
Here are some details from the Guardian:
In its report, called Seed Giants vs US Farmers, the [Center for Food Safety] said it had tracked numerous law suits that Monsanto had brought against farmers and found some 142 patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses in more than 27 states. In total the firm has won more than $23 million from its targets, the report said.
However, one of those suits, against Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, is a potentially landmark patent case that could have wide implications for genetic engineering and who controls patents on living organisms. The CFS and SOS are both supporting Bowman in the case, which will be heard in the Supreme Court later this month.
"Corporations did not create seeds and many are challenging the existing patent system that allows private companies to assert ownership over a resource that is vital to survival and that historically has been in the public domain," said Debbie Barker, an expert with SOS and one of the report's co-authors. Another co-author, CFS legal expert George Kimbrell, said victory in the Bowman case could help shift that balance of power back to farmers. "The great weight of history and the law is on the side of Mr Bowman and farmers in general," he said.
The report also revealed the dominance that large firms and their genetically altered crops have in the US and global market. It found that 53% of the world's commercial seed market is controlled by just three firms – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta.
Meanwhile genetically-altered commodity crops – and thus the influence of patent protection – have spread to become overwhelmingly dominant. In the US some 93% of soybeans and 86% of corn crops come from such seeds.
Yes sirree, you heard that right: patents on living organisms. Also known as a licence to kill (among other things). And if a farmer cannot own his seeds, what about his animals? Or what if Monsanto figures out a gene variation that limits your own personal risk of a disease, say, cancer? Does it own you outright then? Or will it only give you the choice between becoming a debt slave or dying young?
And in this specific court case, it doesn't even stop there:
BSA – The Software Alliance, whose members include Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., told the court that eliminating patent protection for self-replicating seeds could facilitate software piracy. Research universities and biotechnology companies say a victory by Bowman would harm their ability to license their work in cancer research, crop protection and nutrition.
Diagnostic companies including Agilent Technologies Inc. and Life Technologies Corp. said they often sell items for research use only, which allows them to charge lower prices by preventing replication of their products. They asked the court to uphold Monsanto’s conditions.
Brave new world, don't you know. Once you manage to make people treat their food the same way they treat a software application, you have, let's say, redefined progress. Still, that the highest court in the land, any land, does it, is a both deeply saddening and literally life threatening abomination. And it paints a society teetering on the very thin edges of its moral wits.
The essence of what's involved is that Monsanto tweaked but one small part of the seed (a gene), but was subsequently granted full ownership of the whole seed by the US patent system. It can thus forcefully demand payment from farmers who may not even want the genetic mutation involved. What's more, certainly for crops that cross-pollinate it's inevitable that ever more "original" seeds become "contaminated" with Monsanto's tweaked genes. And there we enter a legal (and moral) one-way street: while Monsanto can sue a farmer whose crops have been contaminated with its patented seeds, the farmer can not do the reverse, since Monsanto's the only party that holds a patent. And that is truly insane on many fronts.
For 10-12,000 years, people all over the world have been improving agricultural crops in multiple ways, changing plants from their wild origins to their present domesticated versions. One of the most important changes, obviously, has been to make it easier to save seeds and plant these in the new year for the next harvest (no mean feat).
Monsanto now simply takes all of this away in just a few years time. With impunity. And with encouragement from the US government and Supreme Court. Farmers have to sign a contract that forces them to buy new seeds every single year, or they will be prosecuted. Some seeds have been genetically manipulated in such a way that seeds are infertile and impotent to begin with or don't develop at all (terminator seeds).
Monsanto takes a proud global tradition of 12,000 years that has involved millions of farmers through hundreds of generations and kills off their sweat, toll and achievements in just a few years' time. Making all farmers, and all people, dependent on its products. This is the opposite of food security. After all, when Monsanto et al thoroughly control our food supply, what do you think they will do? Lower prices? They are commercial conglomerates that run profit based businesses. Where and when possible, they are legally obliged to maximize profit for their shareholders. Hence, if and when they control our food supply they will in all likelihood be legally obliged to double or triple prices if doing so raises their profits.
When you think about it, it's crazy in a very deep and profound way that people's basic necessities are sold in international markets and thus subject to speculation and boom and bust cycles. Food, water, shelter, heating should be under control of the (local) people, not faceless corporations that can manipulate pricing as they see fit in their quest for profits that benefit equally faceless international shareholders. And I can rest assured I'll be labeled a clown for saying so.
People need to be able to grow their own food, and that food should not be limited to only those crops that Monsanto and its ilk choose not to tweak and patent. In the present situation, however, as reflected in the way it's treated by the US government and Supreme Court, you might be forgiven for thinking Monsanto does God's work. And that's not the only thing the company has in common with Goldman Sachs:
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), its responsibilities include “[p]rotecting the public health by assuring that foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled.” This responsibility entails regulating a large number of companies producing this nation’s food, making appointments to the high-level positions within the agency very important.
Most high-level FDA employees have a background in either medicine or law, but one of the largest private-sector sources is the Monsanto Company. Over the past decades, at least seven high-ranking employees in the FDA have an employment history with the Monsanto Company. Tweet Stat:
Connections have led many to speculate whether any conflicts of interest exist within this revolving door between the big food companies and the department charged with regulating them.
At the forefront of this controversy is Michael R. Taylor, currently the deputy commissioner of the Office of Foods. He was also the deputy commissioner for Policy within the FDA in the mid ’90s. However, between that position and his current FDA position, Mr. Taylor was employed by Monsanto as Vice President of Public Policy.
During his employment with Monsanto, the company was developing rBGH, a type of beef growth hormone. Mr. Taylor advised the company on the possible legal implications of using the hormone on cattle that could reach beef markets for human consumption. However, when Taylor left Monsanto for the FDA, he became one of the main authorities behind the FDA’s rBGH labeling guidelines, posing potential conflicts of interest.
Also tied up in the rBGH debacle are Margaret Miller and Susan Sechen. Miller, the deputy director of the Office of New Animal Drugs at the FDA, and a former Monsanto scientist, helped develop rBGH. Sechen, a data reviewer in Miller’s department, worked as a graduate student on some of the initial bovine drug studies. These studies were conducted at Cornell University and were financed by none other than Monsanto.
Other Monsanto alumni include Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the FDA from 1981 to 1983, and consultant to Searle’s public relations firm, which later merged with Monsanto. Michael A. Friedman, former acting commissioner of the FDA, later went on to become senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs at Searle, which is now a pharmaceutical division of Monsanto. Virginia Weldon only became a member of the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee, after retiring as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto.
Well aware of its accused ‘revolving door’ connection with the FDA and other government agencies, Monsanto has issued several press releases denying collusion with the government. In fact, it posted on its official website that collusion theories relating to these agencies, including the FDA, “ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests.”
In real life, the US legal system should protect its citizens against both Goldman Sachs and Monsanto, because both pose very real threats to everyone's well being. Instead, both enjoy untouchables status and feed at the Washington trough. While there can be no doubt that Monsanto is a profitable business, the US agriculture industry still receives tens of billions in direct and indirect subsidies. Not that Europe feels like being left behind: from the recently agreed EU budget, no less than 40% goes to the food industry. Much of that ends up in France, lest a hundred kilometers tractors traffic jam wind up on the Champs Elysees, and if only French farmers would still use it to fight Monsanto, it might be well spent too, but those days are long gone.
It doesn't matter what Congress or the Supreme Court say or decide. People anywhere in the world, and that includes the US, have an inalienable right to feed themselves. Present politics, and present interpretation of existing law by a highly politicized legal system deny people that right. As time goes by, any American who wishes to plant corn to feed their family increasingly runs the risk of being sued by Monsanto because its manipulated genes have spread to heritage seeds as well.
It's not over the top to compare this to entering a parallel universe, because the laws that today govern our food supply are completely different from what people in the street think they are. Up is not up, and down not down. Our right to feed our children has been made subordinate to the right of chemical companies to change the very food we count on to keep our children fed. To top it all off, the "modern" food industry claims that it, and it alone, provides the necessary tools without which our children would go hungry. God's work indeed. Makes you wonder what keeps the devil occupied these days.
One thing is certain: a Supreme Court that tramples its citizens' inalienable rights has no authority. It's amazingly simple.