Getting Beyond Monsanto.

The Associated Press is plainly trying to nail agricultural giant Monsanto for unfair licensing practices that use a variety of tactics to lock small farmers and small seed companies in binding relationships, for better or for worse. Sometimes, Monsanto requires that its modified seeds make up a majority of a seed company's stock, edging out competitors. In other cases, they've made companies agree to both exclusivity and non-disclosure agreements.

Is Monsanto in anti-trust trouble here? Perhaps, and legal authorities are rightly looking into it. But let me take what might be a controversial suggestion: The unyielding focus on Monsanto's supposedly evil ways might serve to make us less knowledgeable about what's going on with American agriculture, not more.

Monsanto makes a ripe target. You've got your unquestioning boosterism of genetically modified plants. You've got the fact that they were the folks who whipped up the first batch of Agent Orange. And yes -- science, in Monsanto's hands, tends to become a means for getting nature to break to human desires.

But were Monsanto to disappear, problems in the American agricultural system wouldn't necessarily follow. The American agricultural landscape is only a distant cousin of what it was only a few decades ago. What we're left gawking at now is a system where individual farmers and small suppliers either plug in to a larger corporate ecosystem or are left to scratch out a living from the land alone -- in a world where pretty much everything is institutionalized against them.

Take the land-grant college system as just one example. Land grants were established in the Civil War era to put government dollars behind producing self-sustaining Americans. It ranks as one of Congress' better ideas. Today, those schools are sustained by huge sums of money from corporations like DuPont and Syngenta. Texas A&M boasts a "Dow Chemical Professor" of agriculture. Gene modified soybeans are the darlings of those labs. All of it is perfectly legal. Meanwhile, a young person who wants to be a farmer finds the cost of basic equipment beyond reach. We end up like those poor Kentucky chicken farmers in Food, Inc. who find themselves "investing" in half-million-dollar chicken coops just so Tyson or Purdue will return their phone calls.

That's not all Monsanto's fault. You can make the argument that focusing on one corporation's bad behavior has provided a useful bad guy in the ag debates. But I'm beginning to wonder if we're setting our sights far too narrowly.

--Nancy Scola

(Photo credit: Darin)

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