Biotech giant Monsanto has been in the news quite a bit lately, though probably not in ways it would like to be. First, they received a lot of flack (including from yours truly) over their application to USDA for permission to sell a new seed that is resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D, a key ingredient in Agent Orange, in response to the appearance of weeds that are resistant to their best-selling weedkiller Roundup.
Then the Union of Concerned Scientists took them to task for being unsustainable, despite their claims to the contrary. Their report lists eight ways that the company fails to meet their criteria of sustainable agriculture.
This week, the company is in the news again. This time, the news is not about what they are doing (i.e. proliferating genetically modified organisms), but rather about how they are doing it, using aggressive legal tactics in their attempt to monopolize the world’s food supply. Specifically, a group of 83 farmers, representing, non-GMO seed producers are suing the company in an effort to get them to stop suing farmers.
The plaintiffs in the suit are led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and their complaint is aimed at Monsanto’s so-called “seed police,” whose strong-arm tactics include suing farmers for patent infringement any time pollen or seeds from a farm growing GMO plants nearby drifted onto their land, as was featured in the film Food Inc.
The group presented their opening arguments at the US District Court in Manhattan last week as some 200 supporters rallied outside, organized by the OWS food justice working group.
OSGATA President, Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer from Maine, said “We want nothing to do with Monsanto. We don’t want their seed. We don’t want their technology. We don’t want their contamination.” According to Gerritsen, some 300,000 people reside under OSGATA’S umbrella, with additional supporters including singer-activist Willie Nelson.
The group is being represented pro-bono by the Public Patent Foundation, a group that “represents the public interest against undeserved patents and unsound patent policy.” They claim that Monsanto has filed 144 lawsuits against farmers between 1997 and 2010, and that they investigate some 500 farms each year.
Gerritsen claims that, Monsanto is, “probably the most aggressive patent holder in the U.S.”
The lawsuit claims that GMOs and organics cannot coexist. The USDA says that organic farmers are responsible for keeping transgenic seed out of their crops and they recommend maintaining buffer zones, a tactic that farmers claim is both expensive and ineffective. “Pollen and DNA do not play by the USDA’s rules,” says Elizabeth Archerd, director of a Minneapolis food co-op, that supports labeling of transgenic food.
This is really the crux of the issue. Farmers raising non-GMO crops should not be held responsible for naturally occurring cross-pollination. In fact, one might argue that it is the farmers growing GM crops who are contaminating the organics. Regardless of what the FDA says about the safety of GMOs, there are many people who are concerned that these foods have not been sufficiently tested to guarantee their safety. These people are entitled to an alternative, though that alternative is becoming more and more scarce.
Roughly 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets grown in this country are genetically modified and more than 70 percent of all foods found on grocery shelves contain GM ingredients.
As California pursues a ballot initiative that would require labeling all foods containing GMO ingredients, the USDA is suggesting that organic foods containing less than 0.9 transgenic content can still be considered non-GMO. This begs the question of whether we can expect to see a “low-GMO” label on grocery shelves someday like we have today for low-fat foods and if that will be the best that those wanting to avoid GMO’s can hope for.
No word yet on the outcome of the lawsuit; the judge has promised a decision by March 31st as to whether the case will move to trial. We know that should the decision come down against Monsanto, we can expect that the appeal will be headed towards the Supreme Court, where we can guess how the group that gave us Citizens United will rule, unless, of course, Clarence Thomas, who once worked for Monsanto decides to recuse himself this time.
The suit seeks no damages, only assurances that farmers will not be sued under these circumstances and that some of these patents should be considered invalid.
[Image credit: agrilifetoday, FLickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
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