It didn't used to be like this. At one time, seed companies were just large-scale farmers who grew various strains for next year's crop. Most of the innovative hybrids and cross-breeding was done the old-fashioned way, at public universities, and the results were shared publicly.
"It was done in a completely open-sourced way," says Benbrook. "Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture exchanged all sorts of seeds with other scientists and researchers all over the world. This free trade and exchange of plant genetic resources was the foundation of progress in plant breeding. And in less than a decade, it was over."
The first crack appeared in 1970, when Congress empowered the USDA to grant exclusive marketing rights to novel strains, with two exceptions: Farmers could replant the seeds if they chose, and patented varieties had to be provided to researchers.
But that wasn't enough. Corporations wanted more control, and they got it with a dramatic, landmark Supreme Court decision in 1980, which allowed the patenting of living organisms. The decision was intended to increase research and innovation. But it had the opposite effect, encouraging market concentration.
Monsanto would soon go on its buying spree, gobbling up every rival seed company in sight. It patented the best seeds for genetic engineering, leaving only the inferior for sale as conventional, non-GM brands. (Monsanto declined an interview request for this story.)
Biotech giants Syngenta and DuPont both sued, accusing Monsanto of monopolistic practices and a "scorched-earth campaign" in its seed-company contracts. But instead of bringing reform, the companies reached settlements that granted them licenses to use, sell, and cross-develop Monsanto products. (Some DuPont suits drag on.)
It wasn't until 2009 that the Justice Department, working in concert with several state attorneys general, began investigating Monsanto for antitrust violations. But three years later, the feds quietly dropped the case. (They also ignored interview requests for this story.)
"I'm told by some of those working on all of this that they had a group of states that were seriously interested," says Peter Carstensen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "They had actually found private law firms that would represent the states on fairly low fees--basically quasi-contingency--and then nobody would drop a dime. Some of the staff in the antitrust division wanted to do something, but top management--you say the word 'patent,' and they panic."
Set the Lawyers to Stun:
Historically, farmers have been able to save money on seeds by using those produced by last year's crops for the coming year's planting. But such cost-saving methods are largely a thing of the past.
Monsanto's thick contracts dropped like shackles on the kitchen tables of every farmer who used the company's seed, allowing Monsanto access to farmers' records and fields and prohibiting them from replanting leftover seed, essentially forcing farmers to buy new seed every year--or face up to $3 million in damages.
Armed with lawyers and private investigators, the company has embarked on a campaign of spying and intimidation to stop any farmer from replanting seeds.
Farmers call them the "seed police," using words such as "gestapo" and "mafia" to describe the company's tactics. Monsanto's agents fan out into small towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants.