Organic Farmers Take Monsanto to Court

Why hundreds of thousands are seeking protection from the seed giant.
Caterpillar Corn photo by Alternative Heat

Update: On February 26, a class-action lawsuit brought by organic farmers and seed suppliers against the biotech company Monsanto was dismissed from a federal district court. Presiding Judge Naomi Buchwald stated that the plaintiffs, which included the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), had not been harmed by Monsanto’s seed patents. The ruling also stated that Monsanto's average of 13 patent enforcement lawsuits per year was “hardly significant” in comparison to the number of farms in the United States.

Daniel Ravicher, of the Public Patent Foundation, who was leading the case against Monsanto, said it’s likely the plaintiffs will choose to appeal. —Eds.

A group of more than 300,000 organic farmers, led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), is seeking legal protection from the biotechnology company Monsanto. Over the past decade, Monsanto has filed 144 patent infringement lawsuits against American farmers and settled another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts. Many of these farmers broke patent law unintentionally, by raising crops that were contaminated by adjacent genetically engineered (GE) fields. OSGATA is challenging Monsanto’s seed patents and seeking protection from further patent infringement lawsuits.

Monsanto puts the responsibility on farmers of non-GE crops to protect themselves from contamination by leaving a fallow buffer zone at the edge of their fields. But crops like canola and corn are wind pollinated, and proprietary genetic material can be carried for miles. As a result, some organic farmers find themselves unwittingly and unwillingly growing GE crops, which cannot legally be sold as organic. Many organic farmers whose fields have become contaminated subsequently find themselves accused of patent infringement.

Crop dusting, photo by Roger Smith
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Lawyers from the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), a nonprofit legal services organization, are representing OSGATA to question the validity of Monsanto’s patents. While earlier challenges to Monsanto’s patents have proven unsuccessful, PUBPAT is taking a new angle on the argument. Precedent was set 170 years ago in a court ruling that declared it illegal to patent inventions that are harmful to humans. PUBPAT is relying on several scientific studies to show that Monsanto’s GE crops are detrimental, not only to the environment, but also to the people who consume them, and therefore should never have been granted patents in the first place.

Monsanto has petitioned the courts for dismissal of the case, but OSGATA isn’t backing down. 


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