A Maine farmer, backed by 275,0000 like-minded individuals, has found himself at the forefront of a fight against the most dastardly figure in agriculture: the seed and biotechnology company Monsanto, which to some represents everything that is wrong with farming today. Aroostook County potato farmer Jim Gerritsen, recently chosen as one of "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World in 2011" by the Utne Reader, is a local David going after an international Goliath.
Monsanto, which develops and distributes the herbicide "Roundup" as well as genetically engineered seeds and bovine growth hormone (given to cows to increase milk production), is notorious for allegedly insidious machinations, including suing farmers and seed co-ops for patent infringement, offering financial incentives to pesticide retailers to sell more Roundup, and denying charges that its products make the world's food system less — not more — stable.
At issue in Gerritsen's case are Monsanto's patents on genetically engineered seeds, and its protection of those patents. If a seed drifts (carried by wind or pollinating bees) from a "transgenic" crop (a/k/a one that uses Monsanto's genetically modified seeds) to one that doesn't (an organic farm or simply one that doesn't employ genetically engineered seeds), Gerritsen claims, Monsanto could sue or threaten to sue the organic farmer for violating its patent.
Nevermind that, given the very existence of wind and pollen, "contamination is going to be inevitable," says Gerritsen, who also serves as president of the national Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. Nevermind that organic farmers don't want Monsanto seeds infiltrating their crops. "We might have to defend ourselves in court," he says.
And it goes without saying that when they're up against this international corporation, small organic seed farmers are at a financial disadvantage.
The case (Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), et al. v. Monsanto), filed by the New York City-based Public Patent Foundation, has two aims. The first is to protect small farmers, heirloom and organic seed businesses, and organic agriculture organizations from being sued by Monsanto. The second is to question the very social soundness of genetically modified seeds. Monsanto's "patents are invalid because they are directed toward an entity that has no social utility," says Daniel Ravicher, an attorney and executive director of the Public Patent Foundation.
Lest you believe that unintentional contamination would be exempt from legal action, think again. This is agribusiness we're talking about. According to an amicus brief filed in support of the OSGATA lawsuit, "By patenting a self-replicating product, one virulent in its spread, Monsanto has created a situation in which it can pick and choose targets for enforcement activity. Monsanto has, by its own admission, implemented an aggressive campaign to enforce its patent rights. According to Monsanto's website, in the section addressing lawsuits against farmers for patent infringement, the company has filed 128 lawsuits and settled 'almost 700 matters' out of court."
However, Monsanto's director of corporate affairs, Tom Helscher, says "there is no real controversy" and the case "should be dismissed" because "Monsanto has never sued and has publicly committed not to sue farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields."
Ravicher claims his clients would drop their case if Monsanto would, in some type of legally binding agreement, promise not to sue farmers for patent infringement. Monsanto has refused to do so, saying its commitment to only pursuing legitimate cases is strong.
But it's clear that Gerritsen's case, which is currently awaiting a judge's decision on Monsanto's motion to dismiss, is about more than intellectual property.
"When you take this into court, the truth will come out," he says. "And that's what we want — the chance to expose Monsanto and their lies."
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at email@example.com.