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Monsanto Threatens Critic of Industrial Agriculture & Cotton Subsidies

August 30, 2005, Issue #420
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
>From a Public Interest Perspective

E-MAIL: avkrebs at
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Philpott a writer and farmer in the Appalachians of North
Carolina. His farm/sustainable-ag non-profit is called Maverick Farms
and his Web log can be found in his Bitter Greens Journal.


"Roundup, ready" is an occasional feature of Bitter Greens Journal. Named in
honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds genetically engineered to withstand
its herbicide Roundup, this feature will give a brief overview of recent
news, trends, and topics in the food-politics world. Each of them is a
candidate for expansion in the days and weeks to come.

Bush, cotton, and free trade

GW Bush claims to view free trade as a sort of all-healing panacea--similar
to the way he has talked about accepting Jesus Christ as one's Lord and
Savior. Here is what the president declared last week on signing CAFTA or
the Central American Free Trade Agreement:

By leveling the playing field for our products, CAFTA will help create jobs
and opportunities for our citizens. As CAFTA helps create jobs and
opportunity in the United States, it will help the democracies of Central
America and the Dominican Republic deliver a better life for their citizens.
By further opening up their markets, CAFTA will help those democracies
attract the trade and investment needed for economic growth.

My purpose now is not to debunk those faith-based banalities --- I partially
did so a while back here--but rather to establish that this is a president
with a strong rhetorical commitment to what he calls free trade. What
follows will show that this commitment is purely rhetorical --- it
evaporates when the dictates of free trade conflict with big-money U.S.
industrial interests.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an astonishing piece about U.S.
farmers' efforts to win favor with their counterparts in Africa, who for
years have been undercut by US agriculture subsidies.

Between 1995 and 2003, U.S. cotton farmers received more than $14 billion in
federal handouts. Last year alone, the Journal reports, the government doled
out $4.5 billion in cotton subsidies.

That means that U.S. cotton farmers can afford to sell their wares on global
markets at a fraction of the cost of production. African farmers, who
produce cotton much more cheaply, are therby squeezed out of world markets
and into misery. It's important to note here that global institutions such
as the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization
have for years prodded African farmers to produce for the global commodity
markets --- it helps their governments earn foriegn exchange to pay back
debts run up by national elites.

As it stands now, the Journal reports, U.S. cotton farmers, whose production
costs are among the world's highest, export three-quarters of their produce
and own 40% of the global market.

Clearly, here is a situation that violates the tenets of free trade. Forced
to compete without government support, the U.S. cotton industry would likely
collapse --- what the free traders hail as "creative destruction." To a
zealous free trader, the situation described above is tantamount to
thundering the Lord's name in vain during Sunday service (or, to allude to
recent news item, flushing a Bible down the toilet).

So how does our White house-enthroned Adam Smith acolyte react to these
desecrations being committed by his government at the service of big cotton

Rather than kick them off the dole like a bunch of welfare mothers, he's
sending USDA flacks out to Africa, accompanied by worthies from the National
Cotton Council, to sweet-talk African farmers into not challenging U.S.
subsidies at the World Trade Organization.

The Journal article opens:

WEREKELA, Mali -- Drummers and dancers greeted Jim Butler when he arrived at
this settlement of dirt roads and mud houses in January. The deputy
undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture met with local cotton
farmers and promised American help to boost productivity. He presented the
village headman with a pewter paperweight embossed with a USDA seal. The
headman, who has neither a desk nor paper, hid it for safekeeping.

The trip was part of an extraordinary effort to lend a hand to African
cotton farmers. But the prime motivation wasn't altruistic. West African
nations, newly assertive in global trade negotiations, are agitating for the
abolition of subsidies essential to the prosperity of many American farmers.
By offering tips on improving mills, analyzing dirt and chasing away bugs,
the U.S. cotton industry is hoping to win some regional goodwill and
maintain its domestic privileges a little while longer.

I find it remarkable that neither the Journal reporters nor their editors
saw anything odd about the conflation of the USDA and the US cotton
industry. Sure, the USDA exists to promote the interests of domestic
farmers. But it has clearly gone to extreme lengths to promote a single kind
of farming --- the vast-scale sort that's more interested in conquering
foreign markets than feeding and clothing people.

Not surprisingly, the USDA/cotton industry's African charm offensive has
largely fallen flat among the continent's cotton farmers. Here is the
Journal again:

Several months after Messrs. [Cotton Council official John] Pucheu and [USDA
official] Butler visited Werekela, the villagers' enthusiasm had dissipated.
"If we all go to the market together, the Americans have no problem with the
low price, because they get subsidized support," says Mr. Traore, who is
missing his front teeth. "But for us, cotton sales are all we have." He's
sitting under a big shade tree with five other farmers escaping the
afternoon heat. Chickens scratch in the dirt at their feet. "The Americans,"
he says, "promised they would help us develop. But they never mentioned

Adds fellow farmer, Niantili Fomba: "The only thing we've gotten since is
lower prices [for their cotton]."

The joys of industrial dairy It's a little-known fact that California
recently passed Wisconsin as the nation's most prodigious dairy-producing

California's San Joaquin Valley alone boasts 2.5 million dairy cows ---
about a
fifth of the nation's total herd. It also ranks right up there with Los
Angeles and Houston among the areas with the country's most polluted air.

Coincidence? As this Los Angeles Times article shows, the San Joaquin Valley
Pollution Control District says no. After a recent study, the agency
concluded that "the average dairy cow produces 19.3 pounds of gases, called
volatile organic compounds ... [these] gases react with other pollutants to
form ground-level ozone, or smog." Multiplying 19.3 by 2.5 million gets us
about 50 million pounds of cow gas wafting into the Valley's atmosphere each

"The dairy industry will be forced to invest millions of dollars in
expensive pollution-control technology in feedlots and waste lagoons, and
may even have to consider altering animals' diets to meet the region's
planned air-quality regulations," the paper reports.

Aha! Here is an attempt to charge the dairy industry for what are known as
"externalities" --- costs that are normally pushed off the ledger of
industrial farming and onto that of society as a whole. (Right now, citizens
of the Valley are bearing some of those burdens in the form of an extremely
high asthma rate, the Times reports.) If industrial farming had to pay for
the messes it creates, I think we'd see a huge push toward valuing
small-scale, sustainable-minded farming.

In the Land of Arnold, however, the industry stands an excellent chance of
rebuffing this bold attempt to hold it responsible for its reaking,
hazardous mess.

Cheap labor, cheap food, Part I: A farm labor crisis?

Bitter Greens Journal has long argued that U.S. society relies on a cheap,
plentiful supply of labor from points south to maintain its beloved
cheap-food system.

No good nativist should enjoy a $5 lunch from McDonald's without reflecting
on the contribution illegal immigrants make to delivering such a hefty dose
of calories for so scant a price.

Are these patriots on the verge of delivering a decisive blow to the
American way of eating? Are their efforts to "secure our borders" going to
spark a rise in food prices?

It's way too early to tell. But as this well-researched, nuanced article
from the Fresno (California) Bee shows, trouble is brewing in Big Ag's
trenches. Once again, San Joaquin Valley, that (evidently quite aromatic)
epicenter of vast-scale West Coast farming, displays industrial
agriculture's logical extremes.

Here is the Bee:

The supply of farmworkers is shrinking in the San Joaquin Valley, and some
farmers are concerned it will take longer for workers to finish picking
crops this summer.

They also worry the labor shortage will intensify in the coming years.

Farmworker crews are typically made up of 20 to 25 people. But some farms
this year, there are as few as 13 workers per crew, says Manuel Cunha Jr.,
president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League.

The article cites the California Institute For Rural Studies for this
startling fact: "More than 400,000 farmworkers toil in San Joaquin Valley
fields, and more than 40% of them are illegal immigrants."

Yet the number of illegal immigrants streaming into the Valley has decreased
for five years running, as it has in the nation as a whole. The article
states that annual illegal immigration into the U.S. peaked at about 750,000
people in the late 1990s and now stands at about 700,000. (This reflects the
number of people who sneak in each year, not the total number living in the

The reason: "Fewer migrant workers are crossing the border illegally because
of more border patrol agents, human smugglers raising their prices and the
Minuteman Project that put civilian patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border,
workers and federal officials say."

And the ones who do make it in are increasingly spurning agriculture in
favor of higher-paid fields like construction and landscaping, the article

Farmers tell the Bee that they've been able to harvest their crops despite
the labor shortage. Long-term, however, they fear they'll have to pay more
to attract more workers.

That could spark a crisis. As grocery retailing consolidates --- and
gobbles up more market share in the industry --- the number of large-scale
buyers falls. That gives buyers like Wal-Mart tremendous leverage to demand
low prices from farmers. Thus farmers in place like the Joaquin Valley will
find themselves squeezed between rising labor costs and stagnant prices for
their goods.

One possible scenario is that the Wal-Marts of the world will simply buy
more and more produce from countries like Mexico and Chile. That will mean
farm closings on in the Joaquin Valley.

Another, more likely scenario is that the U.S. government will ease up on
patrolling the border. That has been its traditional response to labor
shortages within industrial agriculture.

Cheap labor, cheap food, Part II: Bitter chocolate

Have Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Nestle been knowingly buying cocoa
beans from farms that utilize slave labor?

That's what a lawsuit filed by three people from Mali claims, according to
this AP article.

The lawsuit charges that:

[T]he plaintiffs were each forced from their homes in Mali in 1996 while
still in their teens to toil without pay at cocoa bean plantations in the
neighboring nation of Ivory Coast.

The plaintiffs, who worked in separate plantations, claim they worked 12
hours a day or more, were barely fed and were subject to beatings if they
didn't work properly or attempted to escape.

All the while, the deep-pocketed transnationals knew of these conditions in
the cocoa fields and looked the other way, the suit claims.

"It is unconscionable that Nestle, ADM and Cargill have ignored repeated and
well-documented warnings over the past several years that the farms they
were using to grow cocoa employed child slave laborers," said a lawyer for
the plaintiffs told AP. "They could have put a stop to it years ago, but
chose to look the other way. We had to go to court as a last resort."


Yesterday the farming project I work for, Maverick Farms, received the
following extraordinary e-mail. I don't have time to respond now, as we're
scrambling to put on our monthly farm dinner. Given Monsanto's record of
suing farmers, I suppose I should stifle guffaws and take it seriously. For
now, though, I'll delight in having tweaked a transnational corporation
valued in the marketplace at a cool $17 billion. Here's the letter. I will
respond when I get a chance. (Readers should also note that I'm putting the
finishing touches on a post about the current oil crunch.)

Dear Mr. Philpott,

I am the trademark and copyright attorney for Monsanto Company, the owner of
the Roundup Ready(R) trademark. The attached link is to the Bitter Greens
Journal which features the name "Roundup, ready" as the title of one of its
features. Roundup Ready(R) is a well known trademark which is registered by
Monsanto not only in the United States, but in many countries throughout the
word [sic]. As you have pointed out in the column, Roundup Ready(R) is
famous in the agricultural industry.

While you have stated in your column that you chose the name "Roundup,
ready" in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds, we must object to this
use and request that you change the name for the following reasons:

1) You are using our trademark without our consent. This use of the term
could cause your readers to think that your journal is in some way sponsored
by Monsanto or that Monsanto supports the positions set out in your journal.

2) You are using our trademark in an incorrect manner (with a comma and in a
way that genericizes the mark). This weakens our trademark rights.

I would appreciate your confirmation that you will change the name of this
column and cease using "Roundup, ready" or any form of our trademark as the
name of a feature or in an incorrect manner in your journal. We appreciate
your cooperation in this matter.

Very truly yours,

Barb Bunning-Stevens
Assistant General Counsel - Trademarks


Monday, August 29, 2005

As I reported Friday, Monsanto contacted me to "request" that I cease using
the headline "Roundup, ready," a title I use for an occasional feature that
rounds up food-politics news. Here is my response:

Dear Ms. Bunning-Stevens,

Although it's comical for a corporation with upwards of $5 billion in annual
revenue to harass an obscure blogger who helps run a 2.5-acre farm, the tone
of your letter is earnest; so I will reply earnestly.

Your arguments seem specious to me, and I therefore I must refuse to cease
using "Roundup, ready" as the title for an occasional feature on my Web log.

You write that "[t]his use of the term could cause your readers to think
that your journal is in some way sponsored by Monsanto or that Monsanto
supports the positions set out in your journal." Yet my journal clearly
presents itself as a "running critique of industrial agriculture," and from
its first post on has made no secret of its distaste for Monsanto and its
particular style of industrial agriculture.

I doubt you will be able to dig up a single reader who, after perusing a
"Roundup, ready" post, will think to himself, "Now this fellow must be on
the Monsanto dole!"

To further clarify my position on Monsanto, and to underline my
institutional, financial, and ideological independence from it, I'm
considering placing a new feature along the left-hand side of my blog.
Titled "Bitter Greens on Monsanto," it would be a compilation of clickable
headlines to the 15 or so posts that have mentioned your company. Would that
go some way toward distancing our two entities?

Nor am I persuaded by the claim that my use of a comma in "Roundup, ready"
somehow "weakens [Monsanto's] trademark rights." If I were in the business
of genetically altering seeds so that they could withstand copious
applications of herbicides, and I were marketing my product under the brand
"Roundup, ready," cheekily trying to leverage Monsanto's marketing might and
hoping the comma would protect me from copyright troubles, I would certainly
tremble in fear on being contacted by a Monsanto attorney. And I would
immediately cease and desist that dubious practice.

However, I am selling nothing. I am a polemicist employing (in the case of
"Roundup, ready") satire to advance the cause of locally based, organic
agriculture. If I'm able with my writing to stop a farmer from buying your
product, then it will be due to the force of my arguments, not to any
confusion regarding your trademark.

With all due respect, it seems to me that rather than protect your trademark
from any serious threat, what you're really trying to do is intimidate a
political opponent into ceasing what is surely Constitutionally protected
speech. And so, as I stated above, I must decline your request. And I will
redouble my efforts to study and write about the practices of your company.

Tom Philpott