Farmers take on Monsanto

At the end of March a group of individuals and organizations associated with organic food sued Monsanto in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York. The full suit is available from the Public Patent Foundation, which “Represents the Public’s Interests Against Undeserved Patents and Unsound Patent Policy” and which brought the suit on behalf of the 60 plaintiffs. There is also a PubPat press release and many summaries around the web, for example at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Monsanto responded on a company blog.

David’s claim against Goliath is intended to ensure that Monsanto cannot sue for patent infringement should one of its genes turn up in seeds or plants produced by organic or heirloom growers in the US.

The merits of the claims are not my concern, and I was reluctant even to note the lawsuit here, because any discussion of GMOs rapidly deteriorates into the same old same old, but talking it over with colleagues it is clear that there is a fundamental issue of agricultural biodiversity at stake.

Farmers may choose to grow GM varieties for all sorts of reasons. As the GM varieties spread they edge out pre-existing varieties, as “improved” varieties always seem to do. In technically-advanced farming systems, those pre-existing varieties are likely to be improved themselves, rather than the farmer landraces we normally bang on about here, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. Farmers who want to grow those varieties rather than GM varieties will be hard pressed to find them. Seed merchants who want to produce those varieties rather than GM varieties may be reluctant if there’s any chance of cross-fertilisation and a visit from corporate heavies, as will the farmers when they come to market their harvest.

The issue here is not the safety or otherwise of GMOs. It is not about the way Monsanto behaves (although it is possible that if Monsanto behaved differently, the suit would not be needed). It is about being able to grow what you want to grow.

5 Replies to “Farmers take on Monsanto”

  1. There is no issue here except GM.

    Pollen wafts into fields. If you do not buy seed then you end up with a cross of whatever is grown by others in the hood. No one gets to grow what they want unless everyone is controlled. That just shifts the harm to others who would no longer be able to grow what they wanted.

    The only issue is the objection to GM pollen. It is not about growing what you want, it is about denying that right to others, and that should give us pause.

    1. I refrained from my usual refrain, that people opposed to GM on whatever grounds ought to welcome genetic use restriction technologies, but you made the point for me. Interestingly, to my knowledge no conventional seed company ever sued a farmer for having cross-pollinated seed, and nor did any organic grower ever sue a conventional seed company for cross-pollinating her harvest. What does that suggest?

      1. This suit is problematic because it depends on a reasonable likelihood of being sued by Monsanto for cross-pollination. However, I have not come across a single case where they actually sued someone for that. Accidental cross-pollination results in low-level presence, not whole fields of 98% GE plants, such as what happened with Percy Schmeiser.

        That being said, I don’t think a seed company should be able to sue over LLP because of the fact that cross-pollination happens. Likewise, I don’t think LLP is grounds for suing in the other direction either, because it takes two gametes to make a seed and there are two responsible parties when it comes to maintaining variety identity. I think that the fear of being sued over mere LLP may be driving much of the opposition to allowing even trace amounts of GE seed on non-GE farms, and it would do good for both sides to make it hard for LLP of approved transgenes to be grounds for a lawsuit in either direction.

        With regard to folks not suing each other over cross-pollination without genetic engineering involved, take a look at the seedless mandarin situation in Southern California – seedless mandarin growers are trying to go after beekeepers for pollinating their stuff (And thus making it seeded). Pollen spillover effects were already here before GE.

  2. It suggests that it is difficult to make a legal case unless there is some compelling evidence – such as a unique gene – on which to base a suit. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff due to a presumption of innocence.

    Activists and advocates will bend, spindle and mutilate all forms of law and common practice to advance their agendas. The sword has more than once biting edge. Be careful what you wish for.

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