Organic Farmers Lose Right to Protect Crops
Any hopes organic farmers may have had about gaining legal protection from their crops being contaminated by drift from genetically modified (GMO) crop fields were dashed on Monday, after a federal court judge dismissed a case that, if successful, would have protected them against unfair lawsuits.
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With the help of a nonprofit called the Public Patent Foundation, organic and other farmers who do not wish to plant GMOs filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, the world's largest seed company and the holder of numerous GMO seed patents. The company is notorious for suing those farmers when their non-GMO crops become contaminated by GMOs growing in nearby fields. And the organic and non-GMO farmers hoped the suit would protect them from any litigation in the event that their crops become contaminated against their knowledge via drifting pollen or cross-pollination from bees. The lawsuit represented over 300,000 farmers, most of whom were represented by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
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The judge dismissed the case on the grounds that none of the plaintiffs had actually been sued by Monsanto and therefore their reasons were "unsubstantiated." According to a Monsanto press release about the case, the ruling also found that the plaintiffs had "overstate[d] the magnitude of [Monsanto's] patent enforcement," noting that Monsanto's average of roughly 13 lawsuits per year "is hardly significant when compared to the number of farms in the United States, approximately 2 million."
Yet, according to some, that number is a mere shadow of the legal cases against non-GMO farmers brought by the chemical giant. According to a 2007 report from the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, Monsanto each year investigates 500 farms whose fields purportedly contain Monsanto's patented crops, even going as far as trespassing illegally on one Indiana farmer's land. As of 2006, about 10 years after the commercial introduction of GMOs, Monsanto's internal records show that as many as 4,531 such cases may have been settled out of court. "And all of these proceedings have been kept confidential," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "They're not saying what these agreements were about or what went on. In terms of its record in the past, the public doesn't have a clear sense of what Monsanto has done."
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The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association has vowed to fight the judge's dismissal because many of the farmers have said they don't want to plant crops such as corn or soy—Monsanto's best-selling seeds are for corn and soy genetically modified to resist the company's best-selling Roundup herbicide—for fear that their crops will become contaminated and, as a result, they will be sued by Monsanto. "If farmers think they may be in line for a lawsuit, that's going to affect their behavior," Gurian-Sherman says.
Gurian-Sherman wasn't involved in the case and was reluctant to discuss legal matters, but he did say that the case brings to light a big issue in organic farming, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues its seemingly unfettered approvals of one GMO crop after another. "Clearly, contamination is a widespread issue. There's no doubt about that," he says. "The burden is currently on non-GMO farmers to protect themselves from crops they never asked to be exposed to them in the first place."
USDA Organic regulations require organic farmers, who aren't allowed to use GMO crops, to plant buffers that will theoretically protect their non-GMO crop fields (cornfields, for instance) from contamination. But that doesn't work. Anywhere from 0.5 to 2 percent of organic corn sold in the U.S. is contaminated with genes found in GMO corn.