Editor's Note: Brian Scott farms with his father and grandfather on 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. They grow corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat. He blogs about it at The Farmer's Life, where a version of this post originally appeared. Corporate relationships and the use of genetically modified products are complex and controversial issues, and Eatocracy will be presenting points of view on it from more farmers, food scientists and environmentalists in the coming weeks. We invite you to become part of the dialogue.
As a farmer who is active on social media, I’ve seen a lot of posts online about how corporations control farms or how farmers are slaves to “Big Ag.” Some people claim we are beholden to companies and must sign unfair contracts to be privileged enough to use their biotech seed. They also claim the contracts rope us into buying other inputs like pesticides and herbicides from the same company.
Others make claims about how family farmers are treated by big corporations that they see as enemies of nature, monopolizing agriculture and ruthless in their greed. It’s easy to misunderstand something if you aren’t directly involved.
The website for Farm Aid - a a non-profit group that champions family farms - poses the question, "What does GE (genetic engineering) mean for family farmers?" The text goes on to say:
Let's examine this "corporate control" a little further and look at it from the level of my own family's farm. Technology use agreements are common with many companies dealing in biotechnology. I signed an agreement with Dow already this year, and it’s very similar to other agreements.
When we buy Monsanto's GMO (genetic engineering is used widely in agriculture to make crops resistant to pests and herbicides) seeds, we sign a Technology/Stewardship Agreement. Section 4 of the 2011 agreement I have on file covers everything the grower must agree to when purchasing these products.
Here is a rundown of the requirements.
Keep a handle on the land
If we buy or lease land already seeded with Monsanto technology that year, we need to abide by the contract. Makes sense to me. If I end up leasing ground in crop for some reason, I should honor the agreements it was planted with. This would be a very odd thing to happen, by the way. Even if land changes hands during the growing season, the previous tenant will still harvest the grain with the new owner or renter taking over the following spring.
Some of it is required by the EPA to make sure farmers like me understand how to steward the technology. And the guides actually contain ton of good agronomic information.
I also agree to implement an insect resistance management program. Shocking! Monsanto thinks controlling pests responsibly is a good idea and, if you farm, insects are something you deal with regardless of what production method you choose.
Only buy licensed seed, and don't sell or breed it
Monsanto also says I should only buy seed from a dealer or seed company licensed by them. I'd want to do that anyway. Would you buy a brand new home entertainment system out of the back of some guy's van parked in an alley? I’m spending a lot of money so I want to be sure I know I’m getting what I paid for.
I must agree to use seed with Monsanto technology solely for planting a single commercial crop and I shouldn't sell any to my neighbor, either. We can't save seed to grow the next year and frankly, I'm not interested in doing so.
For the critics who are not sold on GMO crops to begin with, do they really want farmers holding onto this seed and planting it without any kind of paper trail? Some farmers would like to save soybean seed, but with hybrid corn, the seed harvested will not be identical to the parent seed. In that case, I’m buying seed next year anyway.
If you want to plant seed to be used as seed, you need to sign an agreement to do so with a seed company licensed by Monsanto. We do this for two different companies. In fact, we've actually worked with one company through several name changes long before GMO showed up.
We do this because we can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow to be used as seed by other farmers next year. The premium accounts for the extra effort we put in to make sure our planting, harvesting and storage equipment is extra clean to provide a pure product to the customer.
We can't grow seed to be used for breeding, research or generation of herbicide registration data. This goes back to saving seed. If we wanted to breed our own varieties I'm sure we could, but I look at it right now as division of labor. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and American farmers are great (in many cases the best) at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fiber.
Our farm has agreed to only export and plant these crops in countries that allow them. That's kind of a no-brainer - not to mention we aren't the ones exporting anything.
My vendors, my choice
Here's the part where some people think family farmers become slaves to the corporations - the part where GMO seeds force us to buy our chemicals from the same company (but if you've got a Technology/Stewardship Agreement handy you'll find this is not true.): If I plant Roundup® Ready (RR) crops, Monsanto would sure like me to use Roundup® herbicide on them. But I don't have to.
The agreement says for RR crops I should only use Roundup® herbicide or another authorized herbicide which could not be used in the absence of the RR gene. When I worked off the farm, I sold a lot of generic brand glyphosate, a common herbicide. It's just like buying your grocer's private label brand of cough medicine instead of the name brand. The only catch is if you have a problem you need to talk with the company that provided the herbicide.
If we spray Brand X and it doesn't work, it won't do any good to go crying to Monsanto. Sounds like pretty standard business practice to me. If you bought a Cadillac would you call a Toyota dealer with a warranty issue? Furthermore, I don't even have to use glyphosate on my glyphosate-tolerant crops.
In 2012, I raised waxy corn from Pioneer and waxy corn from a local dealer who sells Monsanto products. The latter will be RR, but the Pioneer variety won't. We planted them in the same field side-by-side to see which one performs better. If we spray glyphosate on those acres, all the Pioneer corn will die! Instead, we controlled weeds with an herbicide that corn resists naturally.
We have to pay for the seed. Ridiculous isn't it? Paying for something gives value in return?
Maintaining a paper - and pixel trail
We may have to provide documents supporting we are following the agreement within seven days after getting a request from Monsanto. I'm not worried about this if I'm following the agreement anyway. To my knowledge, we've never received a request.
If Monsanto asks to do so, they can inspect our land, storage bins, wagons, etc. Again I'm not worried. I can’t say I’m super excited about the possibility of inspection, but nothing out of the ordinary would be found on my farm.
And finally, we agree to allow Monsanto to obtain our internet service provider records to validate an electronic signature. If anything on this list is questionable, it's this one. I'm just not sure electronic signatures are the way to go personally, but it's becoming more common.
If you want to see the exact wording of the contract, click to view a PDF of my 2011 Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement.
So there you have it. You can see what we have to agree to in order to make use of Monsanto's biotechnology on our farm. I don't see anything in there that hurts my farm. I don't have to buy their herbicides, and I don't have to buy anything from them next year if I don't want to.
The biggest problem I have with seed companies is that it seems like they phase out a variety from time to time that is a really strong performer on our farm. I understand the concern organic farms have with GMO crops in close proximity to their own. Those farmers have worked hard and shown patience in getting an organic certification, and they don't want to start over again. Even though we don't have any neighbors farming organically, it's important that we are careful when making field applications.
We hope our neighbors do the same because our waxy corn generally isn't RR and our popcorn definitely is not. You could also have drift from any corn field do damage to soybeans next door, so even guys like me are sympathetic to the practices of other farms.
A good deal of the non-farm population carries the misconception farms like mine are not family endeavors. To my surprise, an Illinois study shows that urban dwellers believe most farmland is corporate owned. If perception is reality, then America needs to hear from farmers to let them know who runs American farms. In fact, the vast majority of them are family owned and operated. Even farms listed as corporations are often merely organized partnerships between relatives.
Now, I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about these agreements? Do you think farmers are under control of multinational corporations or are they free to farm as they choose? Weigh in, and we'll continue the conversation.