The user-agreement from hell

Open a bag of Monsanto seed, and the corporation ends up owning you.

Published February 13, 2006 9:08PM (EST)

In the war of words over genetically modified organisms, the biotech industry is wont to repeat a favorite mantra: Genetically modified crops are "generally recognized as safe." The phrase even has its own acroynm, "GRAS," popular in legal and academic circles. There is no evidence, we are told again and again, that human health or the environment have been harmed by the widespread worldwide introduction of G.M. crops over the last decade.

So what explains, then, the news last Friday that France is considering a law that would absolve the government of any financial responsiblity for the "contamination" caused by G.M. crops. If G.M. crops are so safe, what's the big worry?

The answer is that the question of the safety of G.M. crops is not solely defined in terms of health or biological diversity. There is also the problem of the economic harm caused by the spread of G.M. crops. There is absolutely no question that, in the case of G.M. corn and canola, cross-pollination and other factors cause transgenic genes to cross over from G.M. crops to non-G.M. crops. If you are an organic farmer in Northern California who commands a premium price for your certified-free-of-G.M.-organisms produce, this is a huge problem. Likewise, if you're a French farmer selling produce in the European Union, where popular opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to G.M. crops, you are also in a world of pain. The wind blows some G.M. corn pollen onto your land at the wrong time, and an entire future crop can be ruined.

Farmers in those situations have an obvious legal right to be compensated for the financial losses resulting from contamination. But who should shoulder the responsibility for making good? Wouldn't one potential suspect be the company that produced the G.M. seed? After all, according to the fabulously informative "Farmers' Guide to GMOs," Monsanto's own "Technology Use Guide recognizes that GM corn may contaminate neighboring fields: Corn is a naturally cross-pollinated crop and a minimal amount of pollen movement between neighboring fields is a normal occurrence in its production. It is generally recognized in the industry that a certain amount of incidental, trace level pollen movement occurs and it is not possible to achieve 100 percent purity of seed or grain in any corn production system."

However, any farmer who buys Monsanto's G.M. seeds -- in fact, any farmer who does so much as open a bag of Monsanto seeds, is bound by the stringent terms of Monsanto's "Technology Agreeement." Among many other restrictions, the agreeement absolves Monsanto of all liability should non-G.M.-using farms become contaminated.

(As detailed by the "Farmers' Guide to GMOs," the Technology Agreement also requires that any legal proceedings against Monsanto by farmers from any state be heard in Missouri, Monsanto's home state, and also gives Monsanto the right to look at all the bookkeeping records kept by farmers, and to inspect their crops at any time. Software geeks like to complain about the extreme restrictions put in place by the "end user license agreements" that come with software programs, but they are as nothing to the intrusive powers seized by Monsanto through its contract terms.)

How is it possible that the manufacturers of genetically modified organisms can escape liability for their products' contamination of non-G.M. crops, when it is impossible to plant such crops without contamination occurring? This is a question How the World Works will continue to explore. But it certainly makes the French government's desire to escape from any liability itself all the more alarming, because at the end, the only one left holding the hot potato is the farmer.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Globalization How The World Works Monsanto