Monsanto, the often vilified agribusiness corporate giant, is back in the news. First, the Supreme Court upheld its ownership over its patented gene products, even as that product reproduces. But the Vermont legislature is trying another tact with a bill that would require Monsanto foods (exempting animal products) containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such.
The bill has already passed Vermont's House of Representatives, making it the furthest that any such bill has ever gotten in the legislation process. The legislative session is ending, and the bill won't reach the Senate floor until January 2014.
Monsanto has lobbied hard against the bill, and has even threatened to sue the state of Vermont if the bill passes.
This bill comes at the same time as a Supreme Court decision ruled against a small-time farmer from Indiana. As the Monitor reported, Vernon Bowman lost by unanimous decision from the Court defending Monsanto's intellectual property.
Other recent controversy comes from the "Monsanto Protection Act," which allows the company to continue to sell its seeds that are under investigation. The Monsanto Protection Act was anonymously added to an appropriations bill and signed into law by President Obama without the knowledge of many senators.
Monsanto started out as a chemical company, making herbicides like Lasso and Round-Up, which were introduced commercially in the 1970s. In the 1980s they opened a molecular biology and biotechnology department of their company. Scientists in those departments quickly became the first people to genetically modify a plant cell. Within five years, they created corn, soybean, and cotton seeds that were "Round-up Ready," or able to resist the herbicides that Monsanto produced.
The company split in the 2000s, and today Monsanto only focuses on genetically modified seeds. They are the world's largest genetically engineered seed company.
Since then, they've licensed their seeds to farmers for one season, allowing them to plant and spray them with Round-Up. If a farmer tries to harvest and plant Monsanto seeds without permission for a second season, as in the case of Vernon Bowman, Monsanto's lawyers will sue. The seeds belong to Monsanto, and farmers are only licensing them. Refusing to pay licensing fees is a form of intellectual property theft. Monsanto has destroyed and absorbed many small-time or family-farming operations because of their aggressive legal department, making them a symbolic big business bad guy in public perception.