8 Steps the Department of Justice Could Take to Reform Farming | Civil Eats

8 Steps the Department of Justice Could Take to Reform Farming

On Friday in an unprecedented move with the USDA, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the farm business. The investigation began a 7-state probe into how Monsanto treats its customers, our nation’s farmers.

I recently had the honor of presenting for our nation’s top producing farmers in Chicago at the Top Producer Seminar, sponsored by Cargill and Pioneer. I was scheduled to present with Monsanto’s VP of Sustainable Yield, but a few days before the presentation was told that he had moved to China and that there was no one to take his place. I then had the privilege of spending the afternoon in an incredibly insightful discussion with the farmers, many of whom are Monsanto’s customers, who are remarkable fathers, grandfathers, and businessmen.

As I walked into the room for that presentation, I was greeted with “Welcome to the Lions’ Den.” As I found the courage to take the stage, I shared that according to the USDA, farm income was down 35% in 2009. I then shared that Monsanto is reporting, in forward looking statements to Wall Street analysts based on projected sales that they have asked for from the farmers, that Monsanto is expecting gross margins in Q2 2010 of 62% and that they are expecting to drive up the price mix of their products, corn and soy, by 8-10%. I also shared that according to these forward looking statements, Monsanto expects to expand their glyphosate revenue to an estimated $1 billion in gross profit by 2012, further enabling Monsanto to drive R&D into seeds and to price those seeds at a premium – further driving price increases on the farm.

And then I listened.

What I learned from these remarkable men and women is simply jaw dropping.

Due to Monsanto’s contracts with seed companies, farmers are now bound by the threat of a lawsuit if they speak out regarding farm practices. As third and fourth generation farmers, inheriting their grandfathers’ lands, their corn crops are no longer regulated by the FDA but by the EPA due to the insecticidal proteins they now contain, and they are subject to rising, unregulated costs never before seen in farming – contractual fees, trait fees, licensing fees and royalty fees and germ plasm fees associated with a technology that has been engineered into seeds designed to enhance Monsanto’s bottom line.

As I listened to the farmers and learned about their trade practices, I could not help but think of AT&T and the Bell System which for years functioned as a regulated monopoly until an antitrust investigation resulted in its break-up, as the practices employed by Monsanto on the farm, rival the fee structure that the phone company once had in place.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

As our dialogue grew, we learned that together, we could affect remarkable change.

So in collaboration with our nation’s leading farmers to address the patents, licenses and royalties fees now being engineered into our food supply designed to enhance the profitability of the world’s largest agrichemical corporation , here are 8 steps that the USDA and the Department of Justice could take to address the financial impact that these practices are having on the farm:

  1. As was done with AT&T, re-establish Monsanto and its subsidiaries into separate companies; separating the germ plasm and technology divisions into independent entities
  2. Establish precedence that these newly established entities do not collect trait fees, royalty fees, licensing fees or other forms of income from each other, then they should not be allowed to collect these tech fees from the independent companies
  3. Have Monsanto refund the money collected from the independent seed companies as retribution for the fact that the same fees were not charged to their partners and subsidiaries.
  4. Require that all companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta etc.) supply genetically treated and untreated seeds and technology to the public in order to give the farmers a free market from which to choose how much the farmer wants to spend on a bag of corn or beans given that the current practice involves the blending of the best genetics into melting stock corns, so the companies can harvest more profit.
  5. Establish an oversight committee with one term limits made up of independent seed companies and with multi nationals in an effort to prevent monopolistic price increases in the cost of corn and soy production that will impact food price inflation at the retail level.
  6. Structure federal subsidies so that taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize and provide marketing and insurance programs for the growth of commodities (corn and soybean crops) that are grown without the use of synthetically engineered chemical ingredients
  7. Reduce the fees charged to farmers growing crops without synthetic, chemical and genetically engineered ingredients that they must pay in order to certify that their crops are free of these ingredients (fees are paid to certifiers, not to the USDA National Organic Program).
  8. Provide the same level of marketing assistance and crop insurance programs to farmers growing crops free of synthetic and chemical ingredients.

In a world in which food security is as much of an issue as nutrition, the establishment of a level playing field on the farm is vital to the health of our food system. And while the lack of federal oversight and regulation of trade practices on the farm has enhanced Monsanto’s profitability drivng shareholder value, its costs are being externalized not only onto our nation’s farmers but also onto the 300 million American eaters.

We are all stakeholders in our food supply and together, we can affect remarkable change for farmers, families and food.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

According to the New York Times, Robyn O'Brien is "food's Erin Brockovich." As the founder of AllergyKids, an organization designed to protect the 1 in 3 American children with autism, allergies, ADHD and asthma, Robyn has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and CNN highlighting the role that chemicals in our food supply are having on our health. Born and raised in a conservative Texas family on supply side economics and the Wall Street Journal, Robyn earned a Fulbright Fellowship, an MBA and served as an equity analyst on a multibillion dollar fund prior to moving to Boulder, Colorado with her husband and four children. She is the author of the book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. This is incredibly insightful; thank you so much for this information and this post.
  2. michelle n
    Thanks for sharing this information. For more info watch Food Inc., incredibly eye-opening.
  3. Thanks for the wonderful insights. Assuming that the eight steps you've laid out would constitute your "wish list," I'm curious how realistic you think each step could actually be.

    Which of these steps could we have some realistic hope of seeing under the current DoJ/USDA? And for the rest, what forces are at play in preventing them? Congressional offices with agribusiness ties? Policy makers at USDA? If we can't hope for action under the most progressive administration in decades, then what does future look like for America's farmers?

More from



Snow Geese fly over Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: Yiming Chen, Getty Images)

Bird Flu May Be Driven By This Overlooked Factor

In this week’s Field Report, we examine what happens when industrial animal operations encroach on wild waterfowl habitat, plus a new bill that supports wildlife on private lands, and gear that could protect farmworkers from avian flu.


Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)

Across Farm Country, Fertilizer Pollution Impacts Not Just Health, but Water Costs, Too

An Illinois farmer fertilizes a field before planting. (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

New School Meal Standards Could Put More Local Food on Students’ Lunch Trays

A student at Ashford Elementary School in Houston fills up on local food in his school lunch. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

Should Bioplastics Be Allowed in Organic Compost?

A curbside green waste bin in San Francisco, California, collects compostable plates and packaging for use in organic compost. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)