Alex Constantine - April 6, 2011
International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development | April 4, 2011
In a case that some are calling a reversal of traditional roles, biotechnology giant Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified (GM) seeds are the target of a new law suit by organic farmers and seed dealers in US courts. However, Monsanto has dismissed the charges, calling the suit a “publicity stunt” aimed at creating confusion over biotech crops.
The 270,000 individuals represented by the plaintiff organisations took up legal action on 29 March against the multinational corporation, arguing that their GM crops are jeopardising their livelihoods.
“Coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed,” begins the official lawsuit filed by advocacy group the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) in a Manhattan federal court.
The case requests that New York circuit courts protect the farmers from legal action by Monsanto if their crops were to be contaminated by undesired cross-pollination by GM seeds. Due to Monsanto’s controversial history of prosecuting small-scale farmers for patent infringement, the 60 - mainly organic - farming organisations launched the lawsuit as “proactive defence.”
“The Plaintiffs were forced to sue pre-emptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s Executive Director, in a press release.
Contamination and trespassing
In one of the more radical charges in the suit, the group argues that Monsanto transgenic seed patents are “invalid” and, as such, should not have been granted in the first place. The suit also charges that undesired cross-pollination constitutes trespassing on behalf of Monsanto.
In the US, Monsanto produces maize, canola, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, and sugar beet seeds that are genetically altered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate - better known as Roundup - which Monsanto also produces. The patent for “Roundup Ready” GM seeds is highly protected by the corporation.
According to a 2005 study by the Center for Food Safety in the US, Monsanto had prosecuted over 147 farmers and 39 small businesses as of December 2004 and earned favourable judgements.
Many of these farmers claimed that their fields were inadvertently contaminated. However, the details surrounding the majority of the disputes are unknown because of confidentiality agreements.
Economy and health
The “invalidity” aspect of the farmer’s and seed producer’s lawsuit contends that Monsanto transgenic seed patents fail to meet the necessary “usefulness” clause of US patent law. In fact, PUBPAT claims, they are “injurious to the wellbeing, good policy, and sound morals of a society thus making their patents illegal.”
The claim contends that Monsanto’s acquisition of over 30 seed companies in the past 5 years in the US has lead to a concentration of the market in transgenic seed production and that this has quelled innovation and harmed consumer choice.
“Their patents have enabled Monsanto to gain alarming economic and political power to control the development of American and global agricultural and food systems,” said Dave Rogers of the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association - a plaintiff organisation.
The group also cites a medical study linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hairy cell leukaemia, and multiple myeloma.
Meanwhile, Monsanto issued a brief statement on the issue, arguing that many of the allegations in the suit are “false, misleading, and deceptive.” The company dismisses the lawsuit, insisting that it has never been its policy to take legal action against farmers who inadvertently have trace amounts of their patented seeds and argue that biotech crops have created a wealth of benefits to farmers and the environment.
“The plaintiffs’ approach is a publicity stunt designed to confuse the facts about American agriculture,” Monstanto’s statement reads. “We are confident that [organic and high-yielding seed technologies] can coexist side-by-side and sustainably meet the world’s food needs over the next 40 years.”
Biotech increases foothold in Europe
In other biotech news, Monsanto has gained ground in historically hostile Europe. Last month, EC officials approved a shift away from their zero tolerance policy for GM products that had been the foundation of Europe’s policy towards biotechnology (See Bridges Trade BioRes, 7 March 2011). Now trace amounts of GM crops from the US and others can enter the EU in animal feed.
The European Court of Justice also issued a non-binding ruling on 22 March that independent countries within Europe are in breach of EU law by unilaterally banning GM crop cultivation.
“The French authorities could not suspend the cultivation of Monsanto GM maize on national territory without having first asked the European Commission to adopt emergency measures citing a risk to health and the environment,” Advocate-General Paolo Mengozzi said in his ruling.
Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Luxemburg also have bans against Monsanto maize.
Monsanto transgenic maize for animal foodstuffs is one of two GM products approved for use in Europe. Its 10-year license is up for renewal this year and fierce lobbying from both sides of the issue have ensued.
The PUBPAT Press Release is available here.
“Cancer Incidence among Gluphosate-Exposed Pesticide Applicators in the Agricultural Health Study” can be found here.
ICTSD Reporting; “Organic Farmers Sue, Seek Protection From Monsanto,” 30 March 2011, REUTERS; “Major lead blow to European anit-GM crops lobby”, AFP, 22 March 2011; “EU court official: French ban on GMO maize illegal”, REUTERS, 22 March 2011; “Echoing Big Agribusiness, Farmers Sue Monsanto”, THE ATLANTIC, 30 March 2011; “Organic Farmers Sue, Seek Protection From Monsanto”, REUTERS, 30 March 2011.