14 December 2009

Monsoft or Microsanto?

I and others (notably Roy Schestowitz) have noted the interesting similarities between Microsoft and Monsanto at various levels; but a major new story from the Associated Press makes the parallels even more evident.

For example:

One contract gave an independent seed company deep discounts if the company ensured that Monsanto's products would make up 70 percent of its total corn seed inventory. In its 2004 lawsuit, Syngenta called the discounts part of Monsanto's "scorched earth campaign" to keep Syngenta's new traits out of the market.

This is identical to the approach adopted by Microsoft in offering discounts to PC manufacturers that only offered its products.

Monsanto has followed Microsoft in placing increasing emphasis on patents:

Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys.

First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical.

The company soon released other genetically altered crops, such as corn plants that produced a natural pesticide to ward off bugs. While Monsanto had blockbuster products, it didn't yet have a big foothold in a seed industry made up of hundreds of companies that supplied farmers.

That's where the legal innovations came in, as Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.

Monsanto also blocks the use of "open source" genetically-modified organisms:

Back in the 1970s, public universities developed new traits for corn and soybean seeds that made them grow hardy and resist pests. Small seed companies got the traits cheaply and could blend them to breed superior crops without restriction. But the agreements give Monsanto control over mixing multiple biotech traits into crops.

The restrictions even apply to taxpayer-funded researchers.

Roger Boerma, a research professor at the University of Georgia, is developing specialized strains of soybeans that grow well in southeastern states, but his current research is tangled up in such restrictions from Monsanto and its competitors.

"It's made one level of our life incredibly challenging and difficult," Boerma said.

The rules also can restrict research. Boerma halted research on a line of new soybean plants that contain a trait from a Monsanto competitor when he learned that the trait was ineffective unless it could be mixed with Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene.

The result is yet another monoculture:

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable," said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades.

The key difference here, of course, is that this is no metaphor, but a *real* monoculture, with all the dangers that this implies.

Fortunately, things seem to be evolving for Monsanto just as they did for Microsoft, with a major anti-trust investigation in the offing:

Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws.

Amazingly, David Boies, the lawyer that led the attack on Microsoft during that investigation, is also invovled: he is representing Du Pont, one of Monsanto's rivals concerned about the latter's monopoly power.

Let's just hope that Monsanto becomes the subject of a full anti-trust action, and that the result is more effective than that applied to Microsoft. After all, we're not talking about software here, but the world's food supply, and monopolies - both intellectual and otherwise - are simply morally indefensible when billions of lives are stake.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


guy said...


Does Monsanto have a 'Clippy' equivalent? 'Seedy' perhaps?

"Hi, I see you're planting seeds to support your family and participate in your local economy --- would you like some help with that?"

"[expletive deleted]".

glyn moody said...

@guy: love it...