It was standing room only in a courtroom in Federal District Court in lower Manhattan on January 31. The family farmers and supporters gathered were a little like David going up against Goliath, hoping for a green light in pursuing a landmark case against the giant pesticide and GMO seed company, Monsanto.
The 83 plaintiffs – family farmers, independent seed companies and agricultural organizations – are seeking protection from patent infringement suits by Monsanto when the company’s GE (genetically engineered) seeds contaminate the plaintiffs’ own non-GE crops.
Jim Gerritsen is one of the plaintiffs. He’s an organic seed farmer from northern Maine. Among other crops, he’s been growing organic seed corn on his farm some five miles from the Canadian border for 35 years. He’s also President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, one of the organizations behind the suit.
Farmers “Scared To Death”
“Should one of our plaintiff’s organic crops become contaminated – for example, my seed corn by Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn – the value of that crop has become extinguished. No one will buy it because it’s not organic anymore. We can’t suffer this kind of contamination and stay in business,” Gerritsen told CSRwire. Dozens have already been driven into bankruptcy.
You would think that if Monsanto is responsible for destroying the economic value of a farmer’s crop by contaminating it with seed he doesn’t want, Monsanto should compensate that farmer for his or her loss. Right?
In the topsy-turvy world of genetically engineered organisms and patent law, the farmer is falling victim to double jeopardy. That’s because Monsanto has aggressively been pursuing lawsuits against “genetic trespassers,” even when it’s been their own seed that has done the trespassing. (Corn is especially vulnerable to contamination, because the wind easily carries corn seed from fields off a farmer’s property when tassels release it.)
Gerritsen says farmers are scared to death to claim damages because “it would be prima facie evidence for possessing Monsanto’s technology and we would be vulnerable to being sued for patent infringement.”
The farmers and organic seed companies first tried to get Monsanto to sign a binding agreement not to sue them when the company’s GE seed contaminated their crops. Monsanto refused.
So they filed suit in March 2011. “It’s unjust and un-American and that’s why we had to go to court,” Gerritsen explained.
Protecting The Public Against Superinsects & Superweeds
The plaintiffs upped the ante significantly in June, adding to the landmark nature of the case. They went beyond the claims of financial damage to their own private interests to put the public’s interest on the table.
They expanded the suit to seek invalidation of Monsanto’s patents on GE seeds. Should they prevail, it would be good news for traditional farmers, who have seen the seeds they have saved for generations, come under the threat of a lawsuit when Monsanto tries to patent them. Farmers in India who have been sued for allowing their cattle to graze in fields planted with the company’s transgenic cotton will also have cause to celebrate.
But public welfare extends beyond farmers and their families.
The suit cites studies showing that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (which can be used in much higher amounts when used on crops planted with the company’s Roundup Ready seed) is hazardous to human health, damaging the placenta and is linked to various cancers. (Shareholder activists have taken the company to task on the issue.)
The plaintiffs accuse Monsanto of preventing independent research on its seeds and lobbying (successfully, so far) to ban GMO labeling.
Insect resistance to Monsanto’s Bt corn, as well as to other transgenic crops, is also a growing problem, one that is “threatening their utility and profitability,” according to scientists. Weed resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup is developing, too, with superweeds “galloping through the midWest,” according to a recent report in Mother Jones Magazine.
Protecting The Future – Feeding the Planet
Superinsects and superweeds are the fallout from depending on Frankenseeds, which threaten our food supply. This reality is giving the lie to the claims that GE seeds are the planet’s only hope to feed the 9 billion people expected by 2050.
In fact, the United Nations and the World Bank published an assessment in 2008 that concluded, “Biotech crops have very little potential to alleviate poverty and hunger.”
What will do the job, according to the report?
“Agroecological practices” – organic or otherwise sustainable agriculture – “and food sovereignty” – a term defined as the “right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces.”
Saving seeds is also critical to genetic diversity – something we need to preserve in a world challenged by climate chaos and environmental destruction. But Monsanto and other biotech companies are tightening their stranglehold on saving seeds, wanting it to be their exclusive domain.
The farmers’ et al suit against Monsanto would loosen this noose.
But Monsanto is trying to block the suit by filing a pre-trial motion in July 2011 to dismiss the case. The plaintiffs countered by asking for an open hearing before a judge to rule on whether the case can move forward. Judge Naomi Buchwald will hand down her decision by the end of March.
Will the plaintiffs be allowed their day in court? Much hangs in the balance. As farmer Jim Gerritsen told CSRwire, “Our livelihoods and our future in farming is at stake.”
Perhaps, the future of farming is at stake, too?
Francesca Rheannon is an award-winning journalist and managing editor for CSRwire’s blog, Talkback.