Biotech seeds are drawing more attention, and not just from growers. Seed companies have stepped up efforts to enforce various "no-saved-seed restrictions" in soybeans and cotton.
"We've given the program a high profile in the media," asserts Monsanto spokesperson Karen Marshall. "We're trying to make it so obvious that, even if a grower did not sign an agreement at the time he purchased one of our patented varieties, he would know that replanting that seed would be illegal. Our goal is to keep it from happening."
Marshall says the company estimates the incidence of brown bagging, or pirating, of genetically altered seed has been very small to date.
Murray Robinson, president of Delta & Pine Land Co., Scott, MS, says that cotton seed historically has not been pirated as broadly as soybeans, "with the exception of the High Plains region. It's more of a habit in some areas. We've done some messaging to warn producers about the risk-reward ratio.
"Seed input is a relatively small percentage of expense compared to the value of the crop," says Robinson. "The farmer who buys it from the mom-and-pop delinter is taking a real risk. He never knows if what he is getting is the real thing. And if he kills his crop, there's no professional seed company to stand behind it."
Mark Schmidt, soybean product manager at Novartis Seeds, Golden Valley, MN, says saved seed is an issue, and farmers need to consider the cost of saving seed (cleaning, storage, etc.).
"I'm sure some producers may be considering it, but better growers want the quality backing of a reputable seed company - higher germination standards and improved yields," Schmidt comments.
Monsanto has been the most aggressive in thwarting seed pirates. The company prefers not to prosecute, and tries to negotiate cash settlements and legal fees that can run upwards of $500 an acre. Pirates can also be subjected to on-farm and business inspections.
Those who get caught are usually turned in by a neighbor concerned about unfair competition, though seed dealers and even seed conditioners are getting into the act. Some companies have even hired private investigators when seed and money have changed hands, though Marshall says, "We would only use an investigator to check out appropriately strong reports."