I had a chance tonight to watch Robert Kenner's documentary, Food, Inc., on the PBS series, POV. If you haven't seen it, I would highly recommend the film as a sobering look at the industrialization of the food we eat. It touches on many issues that resonate with what I write about in this blog, including the effects of industrialization, patent issues, innovation, and an open society. The film was nominated in the Best Documentary category for the 2010 Academy Awards.
One of the themes of the film had to do with Monsanto's patents on soybean seeds which were genetically modified to resist Monsanto's own herbicide, Roundup. This means that soybean fields can be sprayed with Roundup and everything but the soybeans will be wiped out. But, Monsanto insists that farmers who wish to use this seed have to re-buy their seed stock each year from Mansanto. If they try to reuse seed that comes from last year's crop, Monsanto will sue them for patent infringement and even blacklist the farmers so they cannot buy seed. Monsanto has a team of around eighty private investigators that roam the countryside looking for growers who might be reusing their seed and then strong-arming them into signing agreements that are favorable to Monsanto. This is the case even if pollen from an adjacent field where another farmer has planted Monsanto seeds cross-pollinates his neighbor's field that was not grown from Monsanto seeds. Monsanto can test the soybean plant and determine if it contains their patented gene. If it does, all hell breaks loose.
I am a supporter of a strong intellectual property system to encourage innovation, but the Monsanto case seems to be a situation where the patent owner has too much power. The way these cases are being identified and handled could easily make someone who is paranoid believe that industry and government are working hand-in-hand for the benefit of the Monsanto's profit and not for the greater good of society. Not surprisingly, Monsanto (like other large agribusinesses) declined to be interviewed for the film. I can't say I am surprised.