PETER SHINKLE, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH -- A farmer opposed
to Monsanto Co.'s genetic seed licensing practices was sentenced pMay 7]
in federal court at St. Louis to eight months in prison for lying about
a truckload of cotton seed he hid for a friend.
Kem Ralph, 47, of Covington, Tenn., also admitted burning a truckload of
seed, in defiance of a court order, to keep Monsanto from using it as evidence
in a lawsuit against him.
The prison term for conspiracy to commit fraud is believed to be the first
criminal prosecution linked to Monsanto's crackdown on farmers it claims
are violating agreements on use of the genetically modified seeds.
Ralph pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on February 21 of lying in
a sworn statement in the civil case.
At issue is seed-saving, the age-old agricultural practice of keeping seed
from one crop to plant another. Monsanto's licensing agreement forbids
it, a policy that has drawn bitter opposition from some farmers.
In court Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Webber ordered Ralph to
serve the prison time and to repay Monsanto $165,649 for about 41 tons
of genetically engineered cotton and soybean seed he was found to have
saved in violation of the agreement.
Monsanto says it has filed 73 civil lawsuits against farmers in the past
five years over this issue.
Officials of the company, based in Creve Coeur, hoped that Ralph's case
would send a stern message. Monsanto has distributed information about
it and about the civil litigation as a warning.
Before Ralph's sentencing Wednesday, a Monsanto official told Judge Webber
that other farmers would closely watch the outcome.
"Their behavior will be set according to the results here today,"
said Scott Baucum, an intellectual property protection manager for Monsanto.
The ruddy-faced Ralph appeared in court in blue jeans and a plaid shirt.
He made no comment during or after the hearing. His attorneys have asked
him to hold his peace because his civil case with Monsanto --- in which
he has already been ordered to pay more than $1.7 million to the agribusiness
giant --- is still not over.
But Ralph has been outspoken about his feelings. He said in a deposition
2000 that opposition to Monsanto led to his decision to
burn the bags of seed.
"Me and my brother talked about how rotten and lowdown Monsanto is.
We're tired of being pushed around by Monsanto," he said then. "We
are being pushed around and drug down a road like a bunch of dogs. And
we decided we'd burn them."
Monsanto's new seeds have won widespread acceptance among American farmers.
An example is genetically modified soybean seeds, which are designed to
work with Monsanto's herbicide Roundup.
The seeds, which won government approval in 1994, are expected to account
for 80% of the 73 million acres of soybeans planted in 2002 and 2003, the
Department of Agriculture says.
Monsanto and its supporters say its fees are justified so the company can
recoup costs and pay for future research.
Farmers who refuse to pay the fees obtain an unfair advantage over others,
Some critics contend that the company's pricing is excessive and too tough
"Farmers were always able to compete by saving seed. It's really a
question of the corporate profit - that's what's being protected. If you
can't save seed, you've got to buy it," said Lou Leonatti, an attorney
from Mexico, Missouri, who represents Ralph in his civil case.
People from Tipton County, near Ralph's home, wrote to tell Judge Webber
that farmers there had suffered some hard years.
Paul D'Agrossa, attorney for Ralph in the criminal case, argued for probation
so his client could continue to work the soil and support his teenage son.
But Webber, who explained that he had saved seed on the family farm where
he grew up, said he could not ignore Ralph's efforts to conceal evidence.
"I'm not interested in making an example of Mr. Ralph. At the same
time, I can't turn a blind eye to his conduct," the judge said.
Taking note of the planting season, Webber said he would not require the
farmer to report to prison before July 1.
- From Horst
- 1. Why don't they start with organic farming? It is
a viable method with the same profit after the first couple of years needed
for the soil to recover.
- 2. Obviously, there are many farmers who suffer under
this evil conduct of Monsanto.
- What will happen when thousands of farmers do the same?
i.e. save seeds for the next year.
- They can't send them all to prison!
- Civil disobeyance is the right way to answer this and
it is usually successfull. Use the internet to get organized!
- By the way, here in Europe Monsanto is THE symbol for
evil Amerikkkan companies.