An estimated 400 farmers have received threats of legal action from Monsanto over alleged patent infringement. While Canadian farmers will be familiar with the trials and tribulations of Percy Schmeiser, names like Homan McFarling and Nelson Farms should resonate with American producers. Few of these cases ever get to court because most farmers look at the odds of outlasting Monsanto and simply give in. A clause in Monsanto's licensing agreement allows Monsanto to take such cases in the U.S. before courts in Missouri. This can add a huge amount to the legal bills of farmers who might be thousands of miles away.
Several of the cases that have gone to court are enough to scare farmers into meek submission to Monsanto's demands. Homan McFarling was fined $780,000 for growing Roundup Ready soybeans without paying Monsanto's licensing fee. Tennessee farmer Kem Ralph was fined $1.7 million and sentenced to eight months in jail for a variety of offenses that began with a Monsanto lawsuit.
Monsanto must be pleased with the results of its aggressive legal campaign. So pleased, in fact, it has decided to branch out. Monsanto's latest foray into the courtroom has it suing a dairy in Maine, alleging that Oakhurst Dairy's marketing campaign that touts its milk as being free of artificial growth hormones is misleading. Monsanto further claims Oakhurst's ads and labels are deceptive and disparage Monsanto's products by implying that milk from untreated cows is better than milk from hormone-treated cows.
Monsanto is the world's only producer of artificial bovine growth hormone (BGH). This product is banned in Canada and elsewhere because of concerns about its impact on humans and the cows that are injected with it. In the U.S., where BGH is legal, some dairy farmers have captured a niche market by declaring that they do not use it on their cows. The Oakhurst Dairy label is simple enough: "Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones." Who would have thought that a simple statement of the truth could have such dire consequences?
Oddly enough, it would not be unexpected if Monsanto were to name the state of Maine as a co-defendant. Maine has a program, the Quality Trademark Seal, which can only be carried on dairy products that are guaranteed free of artificial growth hormones.
Monsanto's latest legal moves have angered farmers and consumers alike. Oakhurst Dairy defends the right of consumers to know what is in the milk they drink. Farmers who currently produce this milk would lose the ability to differentiate their product if Monsanto's suit is successful. Other dairies, which make similar claims, will be watching.
Monsanto treads on thin ice with its aggressive litigation. However, it need not fear the same consumer backlash that other companies might face. Monsanto does not sell directly to the average consumer. Rather, its customers are farmers who often have no other place to go if they want to grow certain products. Because of this dependency relationship, farmers cannot afford to stay angry at Monsanto forever. Monsanto, on the other hand, can enjoy the exercise of its brute power with little fear of repercussions. It is a situation that could easily get worse.
Tuesday, April 27, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- After losing to Monsanto in federal district court in late 2002, Homan McFarling thought he'd have to pay the company $780,000 for illegally saving and replanting its genetically engineered soybean seed. However, a federal appeals court earlier this month threw out the award for damages. The Mississippi farmer likely will end up owing the company a fraction of the original amount. What's more, his lawyer is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court on antitrust grounds.
"It's one thing to subsidize Monsanto, but why do farmers have to subsidize the seed companies that have nothing to do with development of the [transgenic] seed but are charging higher prices," says Tupelo, Miss. attorney Jim Waide.