Daily Kos: Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence (very good essay - here are some excerpts)
Bt and Monsanto. The rootworms are newsworthy because they're not supposed to be there. The fields were planted with a corn seed that Monsanto genetically modified to kill rootworms. It contains a gene from bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring insect-killing bacteria. Apparently the Iowa fields have evolved a rootworm resistant to Bt, or at least to this particular expression of Bt. That's bad -- and not just for Monsanto.
This possibility was considered when the Monsanto corn was approved by the EPA in 2003. The remedy was for farmers to plant 20% of their fields with non-Bt corn. Basically, you want to prevent insects with low-level resistance from mating with each other and producing high-level resistance. The 20% "refuge" area keeps non-resistant rootworms in the evolutionary picture, so that the species as a whole doesn't become resistant.
Now it looks like 20% wasn't enough. That's what independent scientists told the EPA in 2003. They wanted 50% non-Bt corn, but Monsanto lobbied the EPA down to 20%. Now it looks like their lobbying screwed up their own product.....Monsanto's Bt seeds, by contrast, expose the entire field, all season long. And one of the seed's touted advantages is that you don't have to rotate. The Iowa fields where resistance developed had been planted in corn for many years in a row. So, used as directed, Monsanto's seeds are breeding Bt-resistant rootworms. (It's not clear yet if the Iowa worms are universally Bt-resistant or just resistant to the particular protein Monsanto engineered its seeds to produce. In any case, they are a step in the direction of Bt-resistant rootworms.)
Once they exist, these rootworms are unlikely to respect property lines. They'll be a problem for everybody, including the organic farms. So Monsanto has profited by using up a common resource that could have lasted for centuries otherwise.
The term judicial activism is hardly ever applied to cases that expand corporate rights. But patenting life-forms stems from Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980), where it is the liberal dissent of Justice Brennan that invokes judicial restraint: "We must be careful to extend patent protection no further than Congress has provided." He lost.
Monsanto vs. the farmers who don't buy its seed. Some farmers who never bought Monsanto seed are growing patented plants because birds drop seeds on their property or pollen blows in from a neighbor's field. Other farmers who stopped using Monsanto seed nonetheless see "volunteer" seeds from last year's crop sprout in their fields.
Occasionally such a farmer loses a patent infringement suit. And no one knows how many innocent farmers -- less determined than this family profiled by CBS -- just pay up when confronted with evidence of patented plants in their fields and the threat of Monsanto's expensive legal team. (Sixty different organic-farming organizations have preemptively filed suit against Monsanto to avoid being sued later for inadvertent patent infringement.)
Farmers who hope to export to countries that ban genetically modified crops are harmed if the wind blows Monsanto pollen onto their fields. But Monsanto's licensing agreement puts this responsibility on the farmer who plants its seeds. So you can sue your neighbor, but not Monsanto.
By their insatiable nature, corporations make all tragedy-of-the-commons problems much, much worse. Antibiotic-resistant disease is a similar story, as the meat industry uses massive quantities of antibiotics without concern for the consequences. Ditto for air quality, water rights, and any other common asset that a corporation can profit from. If there's a horse in the common stable, a corporation will ride it to death.
Humanists for Social Justice and Environmental Action supports Human Rights, Social and Economic Justice, Environmental Activism and Planetary Ethics in North America & Globally, with particular reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other Human Rights UN treaties and conventions listed above.