By Associated Press
May 10, 2003
ST. LOUIS -- The case of a Tennessee farmer opposed to Monsanto Co.'s genetic seed licensing practices could be a first for the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant.
Kem Ralph, 47, of Covington, Tenn., was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in St. Louis to eight months in prison for lying about a truckload of cotton seed he hid for a friend.
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 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. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in February to lying in a sworn statement in the civil case.
At issue is seed-saving, a common agricultural practice of keeping seed from one crop to plant another. Monsanto's licensing agreement forbids it, a policy that some farmers bitterly oppose.
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.
Company officials hoped that Ralph's case would send a message to farmers. Monsanto has distributed information about it and about the civil litigation as a warning.
Before Ralph's sentencing Wednesday, a Monsanto official told the judge 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.
Ralph made no comment in court. His civil case with Monsanto is not over; he has already been ordered to pay more than $1.7 million to Monsanto.
But Ralph said in a deposition in 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."
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