NOFA, Rural Vt. join suit against Monsanto
VERMONT — The Vermont chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association and farmer advocacy group Rural Vermont have jumped aboard a class-action lawsuit that aims to prohibit Monsanto Company from suing farmers whose crops have been contaminated by the company’s patented Roundup Ready seed.
The case, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al. versus Monsanto, was filed late last month in the federal district court in Manhattan, and it joins 60 organizations, farmers and seed businesses together under the legal representation of the New York-based Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT).
At the center of the case is a growing concern over cross-pollination of genetically engineered (GE) seeds, and worry over Monsanto’s prosecution of farmers for growing its patented seeds, most prominently its Roundup Ready herbicide-resistant brand.
A press release by PUBPAT alleges that, “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.”
In the same press release, PUBPAT executive director Dan Ravicher said, “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.”
Monsanto, in documents on its website, alleges that it has never sued a farmer who did not intentionally infringe a patent, and that it makes every effort to settle suits outside of the litigation process. Previous cases on the United States Supreme Court, as well as patent law in the United States, have upheld a company’s right to possess patents on living organisms.
But, said Jared Carter, executive director of Rural Vermont, “patent law holds that patents are only valid if they’re for a useful purpose.”
Carter said that using a patent to file suit against farmers whose crops have cross-pollinated with Monsanto seed is not a useful purpose.
PUBPAT is seeking to release farmers from fear of patent infringement prosecution in the case of contaminated crops, and its case filing alleges that GE crops have negative economic and health effects, as well as decreasing biodiversity among food crops.
For Dave Rogers, public policy advisor for NOFA-VT, the issue extends beyond one that only concerns organic farmers.
“People are growing crops for export into markets that absolutely won’t accept (genetically modified crops),” said Rogers.
Many European markets will test crops that enter the company — and responsibility for keeping the seeds free of GE organisms falls to the farmer — even in the case of alfalfa, which has seeds that can travel 3 to 5 miles from where they are growing. This, said Rogers, means that farmers who do not grow GE crops must be aware of what is being grown in the vicinity of their crops.
“That’s fairly onerous to do, difficult to accomplish, and we don’t think it’s fair,” said Rogers.
Jared Carter, executive director of Rural Vermont, said that by joining the lawsuit, his organization is representing the views of approximately 800 Vermont farmers, ranging from small to medium-sized, organic to conventional. He said 95 percent of respondents in a recent member poll expressed concern over the issue of GE seed and patenting issues. He cited a broad base of concern over GE alfalfa that is under discussion nationally and in the Vermont legislature.
“It’s an individual rights issue,” he said.
But in this case, the plaintiffs are banking on strength in numbers, said Rogers.
“The suit is being brought by quite a number of farmers and seed companies that don’t have the resources to fight Monsanto in court,” said Rogers. “Monsanto is huge —it’s a David and Goliath situation.”
But he said that his organization is optimistic about the case’s prospects in court.
“We felt that this particular legal action was appropriate, and likely to yield some effect,” he said.
Carter and Rogers both said they and their organizations would have to be patient, since seeking all the facts and coming to a final decision on this type of case can take many years.
“Change takes time — we all recognize it’s not going to happen overnight, but we need to keep pushing,” said Carter.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].