Organic Vegetable Farmers – WARNING – you may be engaging in contract agreements with Monsanto

Five years ago, in February of 2005 I wrote an article regarding Monsanto’s purchase of the vegetable seed conglomerate Seminis. At the time many organic fresh market farmers relied on Seminis varieties. Since that time Monsanto has acquired additional vegetable seed companies, and continued to identify traits in vegetable crops for patenting. Some organic farmers and organic seed companies found replacements for Seminis varieties. However, speaking to farmers at conferences and field days, it is apparent that organic farmers are still buying Seminis products, particularly for tomato, cabbage, peppers, cauliflower, lettuce, and squash cultivars. This is in part because the infrastructure, skills, and investments necessary to develop and breed new varieties for organic agriculture have not developed adequately to be able to serve all the needs of organic growers. One reason new innovation and breeding is slow is due to concentration of resources in seed systems (Monsanto monopoly) and the utility patents that have been granted loosely and broadly that limit access to plant genetic resources for public and private sector breeders. I’ve spoken with university breeders who say they are afraid to breed in some vegetable crops due to the tsunami of patents for things as vague as “heat tolerance” in broccoli. 
With organic farmers underserved by the public and private breeders and seed industry, some farmers have taken breeding into their own hands. OSA works with many such farmers, including some who have made selections from saving seed from hybrid vegetable material to develop new open-pollinated varieties. They do this because they fear that favorite varietals will be dropped (Copra onion from Bejo is an example of one such hybrid that organic growers have been loyal to, but has nonetheless been dropped). It is a common practice for breeders – both formally trained and farmers – to use existing varieties in their breeding efforts. Congress had a goal of stimulating breeding innovation when in passing the Plant Variety Protection Act they allowed for a breeders exemption to save seed. That exemption has been removed with the advent of utility patents, which disallow any form of seed saving for any purpose. Seed companies enforce their utility patents in a variety of ways, the most egregious being the thousands of threats and lawsuits Monsanto has brought against farmers for saving seed. Monsanto claims that they warn farmers of the law by placing a technology  agreement (TLA) – a legal contract according to our courts – on each bag of seed that states that the farmer is agreeing to not save seed for any purpose, including breeding. 
The TA and the lawsuits that come with it have been most noted in biotech crops, and even Monsanto’s own “Technology Use Guide” describes the licensing agreement for their biotech traits. However, we’ve recently been made aware that Monsanto owned Seminis has begun to place this TA on vegetable seed packets. Organic farmers, when you open your bag of Big Beef tomato or Speedway cucumber, please carefully read the licensing agreement you are making with Monsanto-Seminis by simply opening the bag. Unless you want Monsanto agents taking samples from your farm, suing you in court for thousands of dollars in patent infringement, and causing you to go into debt for legal counsel (regardless if you were guilty or not) you might want to think twice about ordering Seminis varieties from your seed companies this year. We’ve been made aware of new language on Seminis seed packets that you should be aware of as well, as it would indicate that the company has their eyes on enforcing their patents in vegetables, and they are informing farmers on the packet of seed in fine print – it’s information you should take as a warning as it makes your farm open to investigation and threats of the kind mentioned above. 
At recent seed Organic Seed Alliance workshops at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference we heard several organic producers claim that in 2009 they started seeing a “Notice to Purchaser” on the back of their seed packets. We asked farmers to send us the packets. They did (see below), and indeed several of the standard hybrid varieties that we know organic farmers plant have the TA.  If you are a farmer and have purchased Seminis seed and have these packets please consider either scanning and emailing to us, or mailing us the packet. It is not stated clearly, either in the catalogs that sell these varieties or on the packet, what patents have been applied to them. A search of patent database shows many Seminis patents, and in Speedway, for example, this could be a patent on resistance to certain races of CMS, but it is not clearly stated. Of course resistance to CMS has been in cucumbers long before Seminis began breeding them, and in fact is a natural biological trait that no human invented. We need to change patent law, demand the congressional judiciary committee investigates patents of biological life, to role these back. But in the meantime, consider not planting Seminis varieties. 
The sick irony is that on the Seminis web site recognizes that they don’t invent the non-biotech traits they are patenting, yet our government still grants them patents (bold, italics, and underlines are mine): “Biodiversity is not just a concept for seed companies like Seminis. It’s one of our greatest assets, and the source of our innovationSeminis has inherited the seeds and knowledge collected from more than 600 years of combined experience. Today, we are preserving 1.5 million breeding lines — one of the world’s largest collections of vegetable and fruit seeds, known as germplasm. In short, this diversity makes our work possible. We are always looking for new traits that are still locked in the vast reservoir of the wild relatives of cultivated vegetables. Today, Seminis is developing “super broccoli” with three times more cancer-fighting compounds than varieties currently grown. This breakthrough resulted from a trait discovered in a wild broccoli plant growing in the Mediterranean region.
Here’s the front of packet:
Here’s the back with TA:

Fine Print:

– Matthew Dillon, OSA Director of Advocacy
< span>March 15, 2010
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18 Responses to Organic Vegetable Farmers – WARNING – you may be engaging in contract agreements with Monsanto

  1. Kent says:

    Good work, Matthew! It is amazing that rich companies can do things like that that don’t make sense with almost complete impunity. I agree, the patent laws certainly need revision to preserve the commons for the people.

  2. Wendy says:

    Excellent documented article- it needs to be on the front page of ever newspaper in America for consumer transparency as well. Have you considered submitting to Capital Press out of Idaho? They publish a surprising amount of alternative agriculture articles that are deciminated to a large ag readership.

  3. Jeff B says:

    Boycott buying there seed- use others. I personally like Pinetree Garden Seeds out of Maine. Grow the heirlooms instead of these genetically engineered seed crops. Plenty of diversity out there.

  4. robyn says:

    Matthew is there a list somewhere that one could check to be certain they are buying from a “non-Monsanto” seed companies? They have been scooping up everyone and I’m not sure just how far they’ve been able to become one company we all have to deal with.

    Excellent article. We’re a farm family that does not want to have our saved seeds confiscated by them or anyone else.

  5. robyn says:

    Okay, went to your front page and found the list. Thank you! Could you tweet it? I’m sure there are others out there that don’t know about you.

  6. MrBrownThumb says:

    I’m torn over issues like this. On the one hand I believe people who create things should have the ability to patent them. On the other hand it is a really aggravating that people are allowed to patent something that nature produce all by itself.

  7. Paul N says:

    I have searched and not discovered any place where a thorough and regularly updated list of vegetable varieties owned by Seminis and other monsanto companies. Could such a list be compiles?

    I do purchase from Fedco to avoid Monsanto, but I keep discovering other varieties that I use and purchase from other sources are Monsanto owned. I don’t want to have anything to do with them. I suspect that I’m still growing Monsanto varieties unknowingly.

    Please, if you know of a list of all varieties connected to Monsanto, I’d like to have access to it!

  8. Matthew says:

    Folks, if you want a list of Seminis Varieties, here are two links.

    1) The Seminis Professional Growers Product page:

    2) The Seminis Home Gardener Product Page:

  9. Social comments and analytics for this post

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Seed_Alliance: Organic Farmers using Monsanto-Seminis veg varieties, be aware of tech license agreement on packet. No Seed Saving –

  10. I’m afraid I do not understand one aspect of this article. Utility patents, as I understand them, apply to GE crops, and not non-GE crops. You can also patent a molecular marker for detecting the presence of a naturally-occurring gene but not the gene itself. To to talk about utility patents in the context of non-GE tomatoes seems to be misleading. At first glance, this ‘agreements’ on the back of bags looks like a way to limit the use of the genetics they developed in breeding WITHOUT using patents. It doesn’t sound like a strong legal means, and I’m not sure it would hold up in court either – because plant variety protections have exemptions that this ‘agreement’ is trying to prevent. I would certainly like to know more about it, but I think it needs to be put in its proper context.

  11. Allison Zito says:

    I would like to organize a “Day Without Groceries” to protest the fact that we do not even have a right to know if our food is GMO, Irradiated, Hormone or Antibiotic Fed. This standard is practice in the USA and it makes everyone of us an unwitting Guinea Pig!

  12. Matthew Dillon says:

    KARL — You are incorrect in your belief that patents are only on biotech traits.
    In ex parte Hibbard the PTO expanded patents to any part of the plant – leaves, tissue, seed, etc. As well as to a plants ability to resist disease or other genotypic expressions.

    For more on IP:
    The patents on these varieties are likely these:

    CMS in cukes:

    Tomato leaf curl in tomatoes:

    Tissue culture in inbred parent lines for peppers:

    Matthew Dillon

  13. Matthew Dillon says:

    KARL — You are incorrect in your belief that patents are only on biotech traits. 
    In ex parte Hibbard the PTO expanded patents to any part of the plant – leaves, tissue, seed, etc. As well as to a plants ability to resist disease or other genotypic expressions.

    For more on IP:

    The patents on the varieties I have seen this language on from Seminis so far are likely these:

    Tomato leaf curl in tomatoes:

    Tissue culture in inbred parent lines for peppers:

  14. Matthew Dillon says:

    Breeders can still receive royalty for their breeding work with PVP system. I’m not saying a plant breeder or a seed company should work for free, only that Congress created a model for breeders royalties that was working. The only thing patents are working to do is create monopolies. For more on the difference between the two:

  15. Ted says:

    The problem is that through these rapacious tactics, Monsanto is severly limiting the diversity of the world’s seed stock. This is extremely dangerous, not to mention, greedy.

    What if a company comes along and tweaks a molecule of oxygen in the air we breath and then patents air? Far fetched maybe (or not), but the issue is that both air and food (which comes from seeds) are necessary components to life on this planet. The less resilience there is, the greater the chance for catastrophe.

    Nature cannot be improved on. We are learning that the hard way.

  16. Mica Veihman says:

    Since you posted this entry, we have gone back to review the label you show above and have talked to our manufacturing plant. This is a standard label that has not been changed since Monsanto acquired Seminis in 2005. So nothing has changed with Monsanto’s involvement.

    However, because they have been standard, we have not reviewed them recently. We are now talking with our regulatory, manufacturing and legal personnel to determine the reason and intent for the “notice to purchaser.” I will follow up with you once we have more information.

    Karl is correct above in his characterization of utility patents. We currently only have one biotech offering in vegetables – a virus-resistant squash on the market since the mid-90s (again, prior to the Monsanto acquisition) in which the utility patent would apply.

    Purchasing a biotech seed requires more than a “notice to purchaser” label on the packet or bag. When a farmer buys biotech seed, they sign a separate Monsanto Technology Stewardship Agreement (MTSA). The agreement outlines insect-resistant management guidelines for refuge planting and includes a provision that farmers only plant the seed for one season (do not save seed).

    Along with the MTSA, we send a yearly Technology Use Guide that explains these provisions and also gives best management practice advice by crop. Here is a link to that guide:

    Mica Veihman
    Monsanto Company

  17. Matthew Dillon says:

    Micah – posting this, but I’m not sure what you mean by your comment “Karl is correct above in his characterization of utility patents.” Yes, I know you only have one commercial offering of biotech vegetables – squash – but Monsanto-Seminis has many patents in vegetable crops, both biotech and non-biotech. The issue isn’t if they are commercialized, as even if they are not commercialized the patent ties up the genetics and prevents innovation from other researchers. 

    That all aside, it’s great to know this is being examined. We look forward to hearing what the results of the review of the label. Is there a timeline for this?
  18. Pingback: U.S. Finally Talking About Patent Reform | Seed Broadcast

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