By E. Freeman
Editor’s Note: The following article is the second in a series of five articles on Monsanto’s seed patents, patent infringement policy and legal actions. For the other installments, see the sidebar.
As outlined in the first article of this series, when farmers first purchase Monsanto seed they sign an agreement that states the grower will not save seed from one season to another or replant seed from mature plants that were grown from Monsanto seed.
In 1998, when Monsanto’s patented seed really began to take hold in the agricultural industry, the company started its enforcement of the seed patent laws. This was after two years of farmer education on seed patent law, which began in 1995.
One of the main components of the patent enforcement was the organization of the Monsanto sales support center. Farmers who wish to express concern about other growers in their community who might be replanting saved seed can call a number that connects them to the support center.
E. Susan Lockhart, Monsanto trait stewardship coordinator, takes calls from growers at the support center. “I answer the 1-800 number,” Lockhart said. “It’s totally anonymous; we don’t trace or track the calls. I basically just get information from the caller.”
The callers include growers naming neighboring farmers they suspect are planting saved seed or dealers calling in because they’ve heard something from one of their growers and feel obligated to report it. According to Lockhart, the center gets about two calls per day on average, but this number varies according to the weather and the season.
“Calls are weather-dependent since when it’s raining, growers cannot get in the fields and therefore have a little more time to talk amongst themselves at the local coffee shop, the co-op and sometimes the bar,” Lockhart said.
Scott Baucum, Monsanto trait stewardship lead, acknowledged that this system might not be the most ideal way for Monsanto to pick up leads on possible patent-infringers since we cannot always follow up to obtain additional information, but growers like the anonymity and confidentiality of the phone system.
“What we do know about people in small communities is that they do not want to get involved,” Baucum said. “So we provided a dignified way for them to call in and say, ‘Hey, I’m paying for this technology and I think somebody else ought to have to pay for it, too. It’s not fair to me that I have to obey certain rules and they don’t.’”
“People need someone to call,” Lockhart said. “They just can’t sit and stew about it. A lot of people that call have that personal sense of ethics that a line has been crossed. I feel really good about what I do; I don’t do this because I enjoy putting people on the spot or having investigators go out and check them. I’m helping to make the playing field fair.”
After Lockhart hangs up with the anonymous callers, she puts the information they’ve given her into an e-mail and, on advice of Monsanto attorneys, sends it to investigators. “I’ll send it right away in case there’s someone working in that area,” Lockhart said. “Then we can get a feel for the area and possibly open up a full-blown file.”
Before a file is opened on a possible case, Baucum said the trait stewardship team looks at what data they have available for the grower, such as: has the customer bought a lot of product from Monsanto recently or in the past? How many acres of crop does this person have? Does this person buy enough seed to cover all of those acres?
Baucum said they must ask these questions and make a careful decision whether or not to investigate a grower in order to avoid simple mistakes or mix-ups. “We want to make sure there’s not a misunderstanding out there or that there’s not somebody calling in motivated by some other purpose to cause grief or trouble for another person. We have seen some of those things and we try to filter that out.”
If there are enough hard facts to assume a grower might be saving seed, an investigation will be continued. Baucum said a good clue as to whether farmers are saving seed is if they buy only a few bags of seed per growing season to cover vast amounts of acreage. “One example would be this person consistently buys ten bags a year and has 400 acres of soybeans,” Baucum said.
“Well, ten acres would actually produce enough seed for 400 acres the following year. And that would be a pretty good indicator that, yes, we need to look into this further because something just isn’t right here.”
Look for the next article on the actual investigation process and allegations of investigator trespassing.