Letter from Langdon: The Farmer’s Friend

During a recession, with most prices stable, Monsanto raises the cost of its soybean seed by as much as 42%. That tells you a little about how things work in the food business.

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Aesop, the ancient Greek story teller, told a fable about a farmer who found a stork along with a host of other birds eating seeds from his newly planted field. The stork tried to persuade the farmer that he was still the farmer’s friend even though he was living at the farmer’s expense.

Aesop summed it up with the observation that the stork was no better than the other birds: Birds of a feather flock together.

Thanks to modern farm equipment, seed placement has been improved so that about the only fowl eating my seed dollars these days are a few locally grown wild turkeys… and some corporate hawks from St Louis.

“Farmers are our friends” was the response from Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles following last week’s meeting held by Organization for Competitive Markets in St Louis, where the issue of agricultural market concentration drew the attention of farmers and government regulators. 

Since then, Monsanto announced that seed prices are going up again, based on demand. Of course, anytime someone controls most of a market, demand is always good for them. 

Monsanto said that seed prices are headed to about $74 for an acre of Roundup Ready 2 soybeans, a price hike of as much as 42 percent. (Monsanto explains it’s really not that much.)

Richard Oswald/Daily Yonder
Organization for Competitive Markets attorney David Balto talks about the need for more competition in the business of food production as Obama administration officials Philip Weiser (center) and Dudley Butler listen.

I have a good mind to do what I did in 1989 when commercial seed costs were only $10 per acre. It was cheaper even then just to take a few dollars worth of seed from my own bin and save about three dollars per acre. Today if I did that, I’d save a whopping $64 an acre.

Don’t tell Monsanto my plan, however, because the company pays detectives to spy on farmer friends who might be tempted to plant home-grown grain as seed.

It is illegal to plant the seed that grows as grain on my own farm. The catch is that even though I may not want the Monsanto genes, if they find their way into my crop from bird droppings or wind or some other act of nature the courts say I’m guilty just the same. These days it’s virtually impossible to guarantee that any crop isn’t contaminated with patented genes. If Monsanto’s detectives catch me transferring seed from granary to planter, I’ll be sued. 

Speaking to a group of farmers in Missouri near Mark Twain Lake a couple of years ago, a farmer from Indiana, Troy Roush, said that when Monsanto sued him they took samples of conventional soybeans in his neighbor’s field, claimed that tests showed they were Roundup Ready Monsanto beans and then claimed they were Troy’s.

Troy Roush

Troy was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t’

Before seed patents, I had a choice between buying seed or using my own. Today I have no choice at all. I simply have to pay what seed companies ask. If I don’t, my friends in St Louis can pick my carcass barer than my planting options.

The big picture here is that we’ve gotten to the point that a handful of corporations can decide what something is worth without really having a test of the market. I’m sure Monsanto would say, “Go ahead, friend, plant a different seed if you can’t afford ours.” The problem is that according to speakers at the OCM meeting in St Louis, Monsanto controls nearly 96% of the patented trait market for seeds.

That’s just about all of it.

Moe Parr was in St Louis, too.  Moe’s story is told in the recently released movie Food, Inc.  Moe isn’t acting on screen when he tells about being sued for what Monsanto said was illegally enticing farmers to plant patented seeds. Other seed producers and cleaners were in St Louis to tell of being “warned” about the consequences of their actions. 

If Monsanto really doesn’t control the market, why do they sue seed cleaners, the guys that make a living visiting farms to help their friends, the farmers, prepare their grain for use as seed?

Well, it’s because intimidation is a big part of market control.

The truth is that in its fairly short history of being a seed seller, Monsanto has purchased more than fifty seed businesses. Some of them were big players. If nothing else, that’s proof that any corporation can become whatever they can buy. 

Food, Inc.
Harvesting soybeans.
Monsanto is based in St. Louis, and so is its chemical company spin off, Solutia. Solutia was planted from seed sown by Monsanto in 1997, and contained some of Monsanto’s chemical businesses. Burdened by old lawsuits against Monsanto over environmental contamination from stuff like PCB and Dioxin, Solutia entered bankruptcy in 2003.

I guess Monsanto forgot to give them enough money to pay the fines.

Things are looking up for Solutia now that its liabilities have disappeared, and it has emerged from bankruptcy with a clean balance sheet and stronger profits, just like its parent company Monsanto.

That might be a good strategy for the farmers who’ve been threatened and sued by Monsanto, except once a family farm disappears it’s pretty hard to come back as something else.

For most farmers, the greatest benefit of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans has been weed control. Now pests for both crops, once held at bay by crop rotation, overwinter in fields where volunteer crops survive the following year. That means higher herbicide costs, more insect pressure — and higher profits for our friends in the seed and chemical business.

In a November 2008 paper, Jack Kloppenburg, a rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes, “Who controls the seed gains a substantial measure of control over the shape of the entire food system.” Kloppenburg goes on to state that for true food sovereignty, control of genetic resources must be wrested from corporations and governments and returned to the public, for the public good.

It’s not just seeds, but all of agriculture that needs a makeover. Small dairy and pork producers continue to lose money even as corporate food processing profits are rising. Pork producers like David Ketsenburg of Monroe City, Missouri, struggle daily with markets that are becoming less and less farmer-friendly. Even some large farms struggle.

But vertically integrated corporations that produce and market food directly not only control markets, but the direction profits flow.

Right now those profits are flowing away from farms into some pretty big pockets.

That brings up another of Aesop’s fables, the one about the wolf in sheep’s clothing: the power of large corporations to steer public debate about such things as sustainable food production and control the standards for organic products. They make food appear to be something they produce in a friendly partnership with family farmers.

It’s not.

Really understanding the products in those heavily advertised, plastic wrapped packages of food is tough to do, especially when big profits are more important than little people.

But here’s something that most people should understand: Next year, farmers who buy all their seeds from Monsanto could easily pay more to Monsanto for seed than the profit they, the farmers, hope to earn.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

 

 

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