In the fall of 2000, farmers in the Mississippi Hills found a voice for their discontent in a movement called Save Our Seed. Based in Tupelo, Miss., its initials tap out a signal of a farm community in crisis.

When Bt cotton technology was introduced to the marketplace back in the spring of 1996, there was a clash of tradition and technology from the get go.

As long as farmers have tilled soil, they have saved seed for their own use, often sealed deals with a handshake and enjoyed their sense of independence. Then one day, they were asked to sign a contract which made illegal the saving of certain patented seeds. Not all of them liked the idea, but they needed the technology desperately to fight the menace of pyrethroid-resistant tobacco budworms.

An agonizing run of low prices, terrible weather and high costs followed. For many farmers, those initial feelings of discontent were soon rubbed raw. Monsanto, the developer of Bt cotton, was often a target of farmer frustration.

In the fall of 2000, farmers in the Mississippi Hills found a voice for their discontent in a movement called Save Our Seed. Based in Tupelo, Miss., its initials tap out a signal of a farm community in crisis.

Saving seed for replanting is a “God-given right that's being taken away from farmers,” SOS founder Mitchell Scruggs contends, because seed and biotechnology companies are now patenting their varieties through the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office.

Scruggs says that in a little over four months, 18,000 calls have been placed to the SOS toll-free number, from all over the United States and Canada.

“The first question they ask me is, ‘What can I do to help?’” Scruggs says.

Scruggs has a lot at stake in his stand on saving seed. He admits that he replanted patented cotton seed in the 2000 crop year. Monsanto filed a suit against him, scheduled to be heard in March 2002.

Monsanto also obtained an injunction against Scruggs prohibiting him from planting, selling and handling soybean and cotton seed containing Monsanto's Bt and Roundup Ready technology while his case is pending.

Saving seed

The SOS movement claims that U.S. courts do not give enough weight to the Plant Variety Protection Act when deciding saved seed cases. The PVPA states that farmers can save seed from a crop but only if the seed is for replanting on their own farm. There is no mention of genetically-engineered seed in the PVPA. Genetically-engineered seeds can be protected through U.S. patent law, but it is unclear how that should be done.

However, the power given to Monsanto to protect its patented seed is definitive in the agreement that growers must sign when they purchase Bt or Roundup Ready varieties. The agreement plainly states that the seeds from patented varieties cannot be saved for replanting under any circumstances.

The SOS movement is concerned because many seed companies now acquire U.S. patent protection for seeds borne from conventional breeding techniques. In time, they say, the only seed that growers can save will be from unpatented or public varieties.

Interestingly, Scruggs agrees that Monsanto's patented transgenic seeds are valid and that growers should pay a one-time technology fee each time they buy new seed. But he also believes that Monsanto “is misusing its patents to monopolize the seed industry and control the food and fiber of the world.”

Farmers should be allowed to save seed, he says. “I say that it's my responsibility and other farmers' responsibility to pass that God-given right on to our kids and grandkids. I don't think any big corporation should jeopardize that regardless of its power.”

On the other hand, U.S. seed and biotechnology companies see themselves as global companies and the patenting of seed as a responsible business practice, according to Barry Knight with Monsanto. “Companies are involved in the cotton seed business because there is an opportunity to make a profit. The farmers benefit from many competing researchers working diligently against each other to produce better cotton varieties, both genetically-enhanced and conventional.”

Conversely, in crops where farmers have had the opportunity to save seed, like in grain sorghum, the profit motive doesn't exist and there are limited research dollars outside the public sector aimed at those crops, Knight said. “Consequently, you don't have major advances in those crops.”

As to the misuse of patented technology around the world, he said, “If there are countries that aren't using our technology properly, we won't sell to that country.”

SOS sees another choice slipping away. The group asserts that biotechnology and seed companies recognize all too well that they can harvest greater value from transgenic varieties than conventional varieties and don't invest enough time in developing conventional varieties for that reason.

Ostensibly, growers still have choices. Delta and Pine Land, Co., a major cotton seed distributor based in Stoneville, Miss., lists 27 cotton varieties containing Monsanto's technology and 14 conventional varieties in its seed variety guide for 2001.

But according to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, almost 75 percent of all cotton varieties planted in Mississippi in 2000 contained Monsanto's Bt technology while only 12 percent were planted in conventional varieties. Arguably, a good bit of the conventional acreage was planted in EPA-required refuges for Bt cotton.

The rest, 11 percent, was planted in varieties which contained a gene for resistance to Buctril herbicide.

The paradoxical question is whether biotechnology companies and seed providers are simply supplying the market with what it asks for — a broad selection of transgenic varieties — or whether the selection of conventional varieties is so poor that growers don't have any choice but to go with a transgenic. There's plenty of evidence for the former, judging by glowing farmer reports on Bt and Roundup Ready cotton varieties.

On the other hand, at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in January, the grower-funded Cotton Incorporated approved a resolution to begin a cotton breeding program, giving some credence to the latter.

Eventually, the market could take care of the matter. Already, growers are trying a new wave of high-yielding conventional varieties from Stoneville, FiberMax and Phytogen.

Prior to 1996, saving cotton seed for replanting wasn't all that widespread by most accounts, practiced only by about 10 percent of farmers. After 1996, genetically-engineered cotton seed suddenly became pricey with its built-in worm resistance.

That farmers would take up the right to save seed only after the seed's value increased significantly thanks to biotechnology makes the right-to-save seed issue ring hollow for companies like Monsanto.

On the other hand, there's more to SOS than the right to save seed. SOS is about the farmer's perceived lack of choice, the loss of transgenic technology to foreign producers who, SOS contends, save seed with impunity and the U.S. farmer's inability to profit from biotechnological advances. In a nutshell, SOS is a refuge for disenfranchised farmers.

Could it be that biotechnology is both boon and bust to the American farmer? On the boon side is an independent study at Auburn University which showed that in 1996 and 1997, farmers received a larger benefit from biotechnology than the seed companies and technology inventors combined.

But farmers in SOS who use these products say they haven't seen an improvement in their bottom lines since the mid-1990s, because prices have fallen so far.

SOS says the export of cotton biotechnology and lack of control over seed piracy are the biggest reasons for falling prices and that both have encouraged overproduction of world commodities, including cotton.

In 2000, Monsanto's Bollgard cotton was planted on 4.7 million acres in the United States and on 1 million acres elsewhere in the world, according to the company. An additional 2.2 million acres of non-Monsanto-brand cotton was planted in the world last year. The figures are for legally obtained seed.

Monsanto says cotton containing the company's Bt gene is being planted in three Chinese provinces and that farmers in those provinces do pay for the technology, although the pricing structure is different than in the United States. China's domestically-developed Bt cotton is planted in the remaining five provinces.

China's progress is tainted by seed piracy — although no one really knows how widespread it is. There are no patent protection laws covering seed in China, but the Chinese government “does have very good trademark regulations which are used to deter brown-bagging of seed,” according to Lori Fisher, officer of public affairs for Monsanto. “The Chinese government has been very supportive.”

Monsanto distributed Roundup Ready soybean seed in Argentina before the country had adequate laws to protect the technology. Since then, the country has passed patent laws to protect Bt cotton. A couple of Bt cotton seed piracy investigations are under way in Argentina, the company says.

Part of the problem, according to Knight, is that Monsanto and other U.S. companies are compelled to operate under the laws of foreign countries, “which aren't the same laws we operate under here in the United States.”

Lastly, SOS believes many of the biotechnology companies are immune to the farm crisis and lack an understanding of the farmers' plight, in part because technology fees are collected up front before the seed ever goes in the ground.

SOS, which had over 200 attendees at a recent meeting, has found kindred souls in about 40 states and Canada, according to Scruggs. “It's farmers banding together and working together to try and make things better. That's what we're about.”

The criticism of Monsanto by SOS and other farmer groups isn't all that unusual, noted Fisher, considering Monsanto has introduced a radical new technology and pricing structure.

“Because the technology is so different, people sometimes view it as an add-on cost rather than part of their input. But it's not. If you're lowering the number of other herbicide treatments and saving in labor and fuel, you have to look at the cost as part of your weed- or insect-control program.”

Still, Monsanto is making attempts to polish its image. “In the past, we recognize that we perhaps haven't been the friendliest bunch in town,” Fisher said. “But we want a more congenial dialogue with farmers and we want to hear the concerns that they have.”


e-mail: elton_robinson@intertec.com