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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012, 3:51 pm

Organic Farmers Challenge Monsanto in Landmark Suit

By Rebecca Burns

Cornfield image via Shutterstock

Today in New York, a U.S. district court heard arguments to determine whether a landmark suit against agricultural giant Monsanto will be allowed to go forward.

Last March, the Public Patent Foundation filed claims challenging the validity of 23 of Monsanto's patents on behalf of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGTA) and 82 other farming associations. Monsanto filed to dismiss the case, but a judge agreed to hear oral arguments from both sides. The claimants' suit said that they were bringing the action "to protect [farmers] from ever being accused of infringing patents on transgenic seed."

This refers to the Monsanto's longstanding practice of suing small and organic farmers who are accused of using its patented seed varieties. The agro-giant acknowledges that since 1997, it has filed suit against farmers 145 times and has settled another 700 alleged infringements out of court. 

Those targeted by lawsuits include farmers who purchased seeds from Monsanto and then violated their contracts by saving seeds for the next year’s planting—in a 2003 case, a farmer who purchased $24,000 of seeds from Monsanto was forced to pay $780,000 for such a violation, sending him into bankruptcy. But contamination of non-GMO seed also occurs naturally as a result of wind and animal activity, leaving organic farmers open to allegations that they are also infringing on Monsanto patents.

Ninety percent of genetically modified crops are varieties patented by Monsanto, leading critics to accuse the company of creating a highly-profitable “seed monopoly.” In 2005, the Center for Food Safety found that Monsanto had “a budget of $10 million and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.”

Though some of Monsanto’s products have been banned in Europe, activists say the company has received a pass from U.S. food and agriculture officials. Writing last year on the White House’s stance toward Monsanto, Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association argued:

Obama has not come though on his 2008 campaign promise to label GMOs. His unilateral approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa, overruling the federal courts, scientists, and the organic community, offers the final proof: don't hold your breath for this man to do anything that might offend Monsanto or Corporate America.

Obama's Administration, like the Bush and Clinton Administrations before him, has become a literal "revolving door" for Monsanto operatives. President Obama stated on the campaign trail in 2007-2008 that agribusiness cannot be trusted with the regulatory powers of government.

But, starting with his choice for USDA Secretary, the pro-biotech former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, President Obama has let Monsanto and the biotech industry know they'll have plenty of friends and supporters within his administration. President Obama has taken his team of food and farming leaders directly from the biotech companies and their lobbying, research, and philanthropic arms.

The lawsuit led by organic farmers is a pre-emptive one that does not include claims for monetary compensation. Jim Gerritsen, president of OSGATA, said in a statement to supporters:

We are family farmers and we are headed to court in New York City on January 31 to let the judge know that our survival as farmers depends on this lawsuit. We’re not asking Monsanto for one penny. We just want justice for our farmers and we want court protection from Monsanto.

Activists with the Occupy Wall Street Food Justice working group, Occupy Big Food and Food Democracy now! demonstrated outside the hearing in support of the farmers.

The judge has said she will make a decision by March 31 as to whether the suit will go forward to trial, according to the Village Voice.

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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