ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. The company Monsanto dominates the seed business with a technology that's called Roundup Ready. Recently, the agriculture biotech company has been fending off charges that it's using the technology to kill off competitors. Monsanto counters that it's winning the market among farmers fair and square.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City explains.
FRANK MORRIS: Even though deep snow drifts cover his fields in Eastern Kansas, Luke Ulrich, corn and soybean farmer here, is thinking about spring. It's time to buy seed again, but hundreds of seed companies have gone under in the last two decades.
Ulrich stands in the snow, remembering the days before genetically modified seeds upended the industry.
Mr. LUKE ULRICH (Corn and Soybean Farmer): Ever since they've come out with the Roundup Ready trait and that became popular and basically took over farming, we've seen significant increases every single year.
MORRIS: Ulrich says his seed cost shot up almost 50 percent last year. Farmers face lawsuits if they try to save and plant GMO seed because they don't own the technology. While they bristle at that, they love Monsanto's Roundup Ready trait. With it, they can just douse their fields with a powerful weed killer and knock out everything they're not trying to grow.
Mr. ULRICH: There's nothing like Roundup. I mean, a monkey could farm with it, you know.
MORRIS: More than nine out of 10 soybean seeds carry the Roundup Ready trait. It's about the same for cotton and just a little lower for corn.
Mr. JIM DENVIR (Attorney, DuPont): Farmers will not buy soybeans without Roundup Ready in it, so that gives Monsanto an amazing amount of leverage.
MORRIS: Jim Denvir is a lawyer working for DuPont, which owns the competing seed company Pioneer. Pioneer licenses the Roundup Ready trait from Monsanto, as do about 150 other seed companies. Those agreements control what genetics competing companies can mix with the Roundup Ready trait. Last year, Monsanto sued to stop Pioneer from stacking Roundup Ready with another trait. Jim Denvir says Pioneer complained to the Justice Department.
Mr. DENVIR: A seed company can't stay in business without offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it. So if they want to stay in that business, essentially, they have to do what Monsanto tells them to do.
MORRIS: Monsanto's critics say it used this platform monopoly to crush many competitors. Chris Holman, a patent lawyer who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, likens it to Microsoft and its dominant Windows operating system.
Professor CHRIS HOLMAN (Law, University of Missouri-Kansas City): Because of the structure of the industry, they are able to really drive participants in the industry into using their technology.
MORRIS: Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles says those allegations are unfair, though he concedes they're coming at the company fast and furious.
Mr. LEE QUARLES (Spokesman, Monsanto): We're actively working to address questions from regulators, both the Department of Justice as well as other state attorney generals as well as other parties in the industry, to address any questions they have about our business.
MORRIS: But Monsanto is pushing ahead. It will soon market a soybean seed combining eight separate genetically engineered traits. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Monsanto will soon market a CORN seed with eight stacked traits, not a soybean.]
Roundup Ready technology was developed at Monsanto's world headquarters in St. Louis. Vice president Jim Tobin says it sells itself.
Mr. JIM TOBIN (Vice President, Monsanto): Farmers get a chance to vote every year before they plant. And it's that vote each year that determines who has the largest market share or volume.
MORRIS: Monsanto spent huge amounts of money and took big risks to develop the Roundup Ready trait. Tobin says it's revolutionized agriculture. But now...
Mr. TOBIN: Well, we've invented something new.
MORRIS: Yup. It's called Roundup Ready 2 Yield. It uses the same gene as the original, just placed in a different spot in the genome. Monsanto claims it boosts yield.
Interesting timing: Monsanto's patent on Roundup Ready 1 expires in 2014, and with it, a revenue stream of maybe half a billion dollars a year in royalties. That's unless it can switch farmers over to Roundup Ready 2.
Mr. TOBIN: We'd like to have everyone that is in the soybean business, seed business, using the trait.
MORRIS: Monsanto's putting the new trait in all its best soybean seeds. And Paul Schickler says it's forcing its licensees to do the same. Schickler's the president of Pioneer. He charges that Monsanto is trying to make Roundup Ready 1 disappear.
Mr. PAUL SCHICKLER (President, Pioneer): That's our concern, bridging or switching from one patented product, Roundup Ready 1, to the next generation Roundup Ready 2 Yield, doesn't allow generic competition for the initial technology.
MORRIS: Unlike in many other industries, there's no clear path for a genetically modified crop to go generic. As it stands, generic providers would probably still need access to Monsanto's proprietary data to get federal approval to sell the Roundup Ready trait.
They'd also need closely held technical information to update licenses to keep the trait legal in big, important markets like China and the EU.
Meanwhile, the end of the Roundup Ready patent will likely give farmers a chance to do something they haven't done in years: Plant seed they've harvested. Luke Ulrich is ready.
Mr. ULRICH: Because I don't care how good Roundup Ready 2 is. If you tell me I can save back my own seed, I'm going to plant my own seed.
MORRIS: The problem for guys like Ulrich will be in finding seed that has just the Roundup Ready gene alone, not one stacked with other patented traits. After all, if he can't find the seed in the first place, he can't grow it.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.