Monsanto appears to now be in the business of prosecuting American farmers.
Monsanto has devoted significant resources to its prosecution of farmers accused of violating the companyâs seed patents. It has built a department of 75 employees and set aside an annual budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement.
Monsanto promotes a toll-free telephone number that allows farmers and businesses to place confidential calls to the company and to report suspected âinfringementâ activities by neighbors and customers. The company says it receives hundreds of calls and letters each year about these potential patent infringement cases. If Monsanto suspects someone, for instance, of planting saved seed, it will hire a private investigation firm, such as Robinson Investigations or Pinkerton, to pursue the farmer.
In general, Monsantoâs prosecution efforts can be divided into three stages: investigations of farmers, out-of-court settlements, and litigation against farmers. Far more farmers have been investigated than have been sued by Monsanto, but depicting the full scope of Monsantoâs pursuit of farmers is nearly impossible. Nonetheless, public pronouncements and past reports paint a vivid picture of widespread investigation of farmers.
In 1998, Monsanto reported in a press release that there were some 475 patent violation cases, generated from over 1,800 leads, being investigated nationwide. In 1999, The Washington Post reported that the number of investigations had reached 525 in the United States and Canada. Monsanto confirmed this high level of investigative activity in an article published in 2003:
âMonsanto has reviewed thousands of anonymous leads of growers allegedly breaking the rules, and will follow up on other leads as they develop.â In a 2004 publication, Monsanto claimed that, âNearly 600 new seed piracy matters were opened in 2003.â
In an Omaha World-Herald article from November 2004, it is mentioned that Monsanto will investigate 500 farmers this year, âas it does every year.â Drawing from these sources, it is reasonable to speculate that the number of farmers who have been investigated reaches into the thousands. I recently read that one farmer said he was one of eight in his community to be investigated, and two others said they were among 25 in each of their communities to be investigated.
Monsantoâs private investigators arrive unexpectedly on farmersâ land and take samples from fields, often without permission, a practice that has instigated repeated trespassing accusations. âThey say they donât trespass, but that's bull,â said one individual, explaining that investigators in his town posed as land mappers in order to take pictures in farmersâ fields and driveways.
Another farmer concurred, sharing that it âwasnât uncommon to see investigators taking pictures in his neighborsâ fields.â In 1997, Monsanto attempted to alleviate farmersâ concerns about these visits by removing from the 1996 Roundup Ready Soybean Grower Agreement a field inspection provision allowing the company to access customersâ fields. However, the removal of this clause did not influence Monsantoâs conduct.
Anecdotal evidence shows that investigators spend anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks collecting samples and other data from targeted farmersâ land. Farmers often feel like criminals even before accusations are made, as investigators frequently solicit local police officers to escort them onto farmersâ properties.
The most invasive investigation known involves a Mississippi farmer who operates a farm supply business. Mitchell Scruggs first realized Monsanto was targeting him when he noticed investigators staked out around the outside of his store. Scruggs says his family could not leave their house, which shared space with his store, without feeling as though they were being watched by the nearby surveillance cameras. The company went so far as to purchase an empty lot across the street to aid in its surveillance, and investigators watched patrons of Scruggsâ store from just 500 feet away. Investigators also harassed these customers by following several of them home and warning them not to do business with Scruggs.
One farmer who was followed home by these investigators confessed, âI always thought they tried to get to him through me.â Planes and helicopters frequently passed overhead, and Scruggs learned from people at the local airport that they too were hired by Monsanto to survey his store and surrounding farmland. Throughout all of this, and even though the investigatorsâ presence was obvious, they never approached Scruggs directly.
While Scruggsâ experience is evidence of the extreme measures employed by investigators in their efforts to acquire proof for Monsantoâs allegations, at times investigators have been even more confrontational. While working in his general store one day, two men approached Gary Rinehart with a degree of aggressiveness that made him feel as though they were âjust short of handcuffingâ him. They asked if he was Gary Rinehart, identified themselves with business cards, and explained that they were there to settle with him about his soybean crop. Rinehart described one of the two men as âmouthy,â âintense,â and âsmart alecky,â and was embarrassed by the way the men treated him in his own store. According to Rinehartâs attorney, the investigators were told to leave âbecause their belligerent behavior was causing customers to exit the store.â Ironically, Gary Rinehart is not even a farmer, the investigators had pursued the wrong man.
A Nebraska soybean farmer experienced the threatening conduct of Monsantoâs investigators when they first showed up on his property. After this farmer told the investigators that he was going inside to make some phone calls, one of the men proceeded to step in front of his front door, physically barring the farmer from entering his own home.
Sometimes Monsantoâs investigations involve entrapment. In July 1998, a man showed up at Illinois farmer Eugene Stratemeyerâs farm and asked to buy some soybean seeds. Given that it was too late in the season to start a crop, the man explained that he wanted to grow the soybeans for erosion control. Stratemeyer agreed to do him this favor, charging the man only enough to cover the cost of cleaning and bagging the seed. As it turned out, Monsanto had hired this individual to purchase the seeds from Stratemeyer and soon after filed a lawsuit against Stratemeyer in his local court.
Monsantoâs investigators have used even more extreme tactics to deceive. In an effort to gain local confidence, one investigator reportedly attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. This individual, who befriended members of the therapy group, was soon recognized as one of the investigators taking pictures of farmers in their fields and knocking on these same farmersâ doors with news that they were under investigation for saving patented seed.
Given the aggressive nature of these pursuits, it is not surprising that Monsanto has been accused of breaking and entering. One farmer is âconvincedâ investigators broke into his office after finding evidence that someone had tampered with papers on his desk, closed his blinds, and left seed purchasing tickets in his copy machine. He also witnessed investigators hiding behind gravestones in a nearby cemetery videotaping workers in his fields.
Not only are these investigations overly intrusive, they often produce erroneous or fabricated evidence. When the Roush family received Monsantoâs test results for samples taken from their fields in 1999, they found hand-drawn maps of fields in which the company claimed to have sampled for Roundup Ready soybeans. There was, however, one major flaw to this claim: In 1999, one field the company noted as having Roundup Ready soybeans was in fact planted with corn grown under contract for Weaver Popcorn Company. âPopcorn and soybeans look nothing alike,â Troy Roush explained. âThere is no way they were in that field.â
The Roushesâ experience is not unique. Monsanto told Arkansas farmer Ray Dawson that it spent over $250,000 on hiring Pinkerton investigators to inspect his property for three to four weeks. The company apparently fired these investigators, as well as the attorneys that initially had been hired to handle the case, because they could not find proof of patent infringement. The second group of investigators hired by Monsanto spent two days conducting the same inspection, only this time they claimed to have found sufficient evidence of infringement.