By Jenny An
In this corner, we have a corporate biotech giant with a tighter grasp on the agricultural Monopoly board than your over-enthusiastic little sister on game night. (Their patented genes are in more than 80 percent of the soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola seeds grown in the U.S.) And in this corner, 83 scrappy plaintiffs representing non-GMO seed producers, farmers, and agricultural organizations who say they want the biotech company to stop suing and threatening them. While most are organic, not all of them are.
The latter group — led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and referred to in the lawsuit as OSGATA et al. — has turned to a strategy Monsanto has been using for a while now: the courts. Although they certainly aren’t the first sustainability-minded folks to take their struggle to the courts, their suit, filed last March, has a sweet sense of irony.
As we reported last March, when the lawsuit was first announced, OSGATA et al. is fighting an old battle against Monsanto’s so-called “seed police” and their practice of suing farmers for patent infringement because pollen or seeds from a farm growing GMO plants nearby drifts onto their land.
That’s right. It’s a lawsuit to prevent future lawsuits.
OSGATA and company finally got their day in court on Jan. 31. Approximately 200 farmers and supporters showed up in front of the Federal District Court in Manhattan for opening arguments. Occupy Wall Street’s food justice working group helped organize the rally, though they are not plaintiffs in the suit. “We’re part of OWS, which is all about corporate consolidation, and you can’t discuss that without addressing agriculture,” says Corbin Laedlein, a member of the working group.
“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,” says Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer from Maine and president of OSGATA. The organization originally brought the idea of a suit to the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), a group that wants to change how patent law works in the U.S., and PUBPAT took on the case pro bono. In Gerritsen’s estimation, about 300,000 individuals are involved in the case by proxy of organizations they’re a part of, including most certified organic farmers in the country. Gerritsen calls the dustings of GMO-crop pollen and the occasional seed carried wayward by the wind — a natural atmospheric occurrence found in what is known as the “outdoors” — contamination which not only is unwelcome, but can also could potentially lower the quality and value of organic and other non-GMO crops.
“They are probably the most aggressive patent holder in the U.S.,” Gerritsen adds. According to PUBPAT, between 1997 and April 2010, Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits against farmers for patent infringement, and more than 500 farms are investigated each year.
“The seed that Monsanto doesn’t control, they will control through contamination,” Gerritsen says. “Monsanto wants ultimate and absolute control over everything.” Cue the menacing Hollywood music.
The lawsuit highlights potential dangers of transgenic crops. “We think [the technology behind transgenic crops] was released too early. Way before it was peer-reviewed,” says Dave Murphy, a plaintiff and executive director of Food Democracy Now! “The question is that Monsanto never did rigorous double blind studies.”
The plaintiffs in the suit also state that GMOs and organics cannot coexist. Julia Moskin tackled the question of coexistence in relation to the suit in The New York Times earlier this week. She wrote:
Increasingly, though, organic and transgenic seeds are coexisting on American farmland. Last year, the Agriculture Department said that crops would not necessarily lose their organic status if they were found to have some transgenic content.
For consumers, this means that transgenic ingredients may be present in the organic staples they pay a premium for.
Several of the plaintiffs took to Twitter to critique Moskin’s characterization of coexistence as hunky-dory. The OWS Food Justice twitter account responded by pointing out: “1st para. of plaintiff’s complaint: ‘coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is IMPOSSIBLE.’”
Ultimately, the lawsuit does not seek reparations or a resolution for those issues, however. It merely aims to stop the patent infringement lawsuits, require Monsanto to pay plaintiffs’ costs and legal fees, and ensure that many of Monsanto’s patents are deemed invalid.
Of course, Monsanto denies being lawsuit-happy.
In a press release, the company called the suit “false, misleading and deceptive.” In an email to Grist, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher wrote, “Monsanto never has and never will sue a farmer if our patented seed or traits are found in his field as a result of inadvertent means.” Not surprisingly, the company would like to see the case dismissed. We’ll know whether it goes to trial by late March.
Jenny An is a writer based in Brooklyn. She’s written about food, technology, and the arts for Mashable, Conde Nast Traveler, and whomever else will let her.