Friday, April 01, 2011

Organic Farmers & Monsanto Fight It Out In Court

By Theodora Filis

Monsanto, an agriculture giant whose patented genes are in 95% of all soybeans and 80% of all corn grown in the US, has been suing farmers suspected of violating patents – even if done inadvertently. Incidences of farmers being sued because pollen from nearby Monsanto-brand genetically modified crops blew over the fence onto organic fields, has earned Monsanto over $15 million from patent-violation cases.

On March 29, 2011, Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed suit on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organizations against Monsanto Company to challenge the chemical giant's patents on genetically modified seed. The organic plaintiffs were forced to sue preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified seed, something Monsanto has done to others in the past. The case, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, was filed in federal district court in Manhattan.

Plaintiffs in the suit represent a broad range of family farmers, small businesses and organizations from within the organic agriculture community who are increasingly threatened by genetically modified seed contamination despite using their best efforts to avoid it. The plaintiff organizations have over 270,000 members, including thousands of certified organic family farmers.

Once released into the environment, genetically modified seed contaminates and destroys organic seed for the same crop. For example, soon after Monsanto introduced genetically modified seed for canola, organic canola became virtually extinct as a result of contamination. Organic corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa now face the same fate, as Monsanto has released genetically modified seed for each of those crops, too.

The plaintiffs in the suit represented by PUBPAT are: Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association; Organic Crop Improvement Association International, Inc.; OCIA Research and Education Inc.; The Cornucopia Institute; Demeter Association, Inc.; Navdanya International; Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter, Inc.; Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont; Rural Vermont; Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association; Southeast Iowa Organic Association; Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society; Mendocino Organic Network; Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance; Canadian Organic Growers; Family Farmer Seed Cooperative; Sustainable Living Systems; Global Organic Alliance; Food Democracy Now!; Family Farm Defenders Inc.; Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund; FEDCO Seeds Inc.; Adaptive Seeds, LLC; Sow True Seed; Southern Exposure Seed Exchange; Mumm's Sprouting Seeds; Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., LLC; Comstock, Ferre & Co., LLC; Seedkeepers, LLC; Siskiyou Seeds; Countryside Organics; Cuatro Puertas; Interlake Forage Seeds Ltd.; Alba Ranch; Wild Plum Farm; Gratitude Gardens; Richard Everett Farm, LLC; Philadelphia Community Farm, Inc; Genesis Farm; Chispas Farms LLC; Kirschenmann Family Farms Inc.; Midheaven Farms; Koskan Farms; California Cloverleaf Farms; North Outback Farm; Taylor Farms, Inc.; Jardin del Alma; Ron Gargasz Organic Farms; Abundant Acres; T & D Willey Farms; Quinella Ranch; Nature's Way Farm Ltd.; Levke and Peter Eggers Farm; Frey Vineyards, Ltd.; Bryce Stephens; Chuck Noble; LaRhea Pepper; Paul Romero; and, Donald Wright Patterson, Jr.

“None of Monsanto’s original promises regarding genetically modified seeds have come true after 15 years of wide adoption by commodity farmers. Rather than increased yields or less chemical usage, farmers are facing more crop diseases, an onslaught of herbicide-resistant superweeds, and increased costs from additional herbicide application. Even more appalling is the fact that Monsanto’s patented genes can blow onto another farmer’s fields and that farmer not only loses significant revenue in the market but is frequently exposed to legal action against them by Monsanto’s team of belligerent lawyers. Crop biotechnology has been a miserable failure economically and biologically and now threatens to undermine the basic freedoms that farmers and consumers have enjoyed in our constitutional democracy.” said, David Murphy, founder and Executive Director of plaintiff Food Democracy Now!

According to the farmers, not only is Monsanto's patent policy out of control, but its patents are harmful. GM alfalfa, a crop whose pollen can travel via wind up to five miles, has been approved by the US government, and GM sugar beets, which can easily cross-contaminate with non-GM sugar beets, were also recently approved. Having protection against Monsanto's lawsuits will be a necessity for these farms in the coming years.

“This case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto's transgenic seed should land on their property,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT's Executive Director and Lecturer of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. “It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of our clients.”

PUBPAT is asking the judge in this case to declare that if organic farmers are ever contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified seed, they need not fear also being accused of patent infringement. One reason justifying this result is that Monsanto's patents on genetically modified seed are invalid because they don't meet the “usefulness” requirement of patent law, according to PUBPAT's Ravicher, plaintiffs' lead attorney in the case.

Evidence cited by PUBPAT in its opening filing last week proves that genetically modified seed has negative economic and health effects, while the promised benefits of genetically modified seed – increased production and decreased herbicide use – are false.

“Some say transgenic seed can coexist with organic seed, but history tells us that's not possible, and it's actually in Monsanto's financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply,” said Ravicher.  “Monsanto is the same chemical company that previously brought us Agent Orange, DDT, PCB's and other toxins, which they said were safe, but we know are not.  Now Monsanto says transgenic seed is safe, but evidence clearly shows it is not.”

“Monsanto and the biotechnology industry have made great investments in our executive and legislative branches through campaign contributions and powerful lobbyists in Washington” said mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, an advocate for small, organic farms, and one of the plaintiffs. “Family scale farmers desperately need the judiciary branch of our government to balance the power Monsanto is able to wield."



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