A New York federal court today dismissed a lawsuit against agribusiness giant Monsanto brought by thousands of certified organic farmers. The farmers hoped the suit would protect them against infringing on the company's crop patents in the future.
The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and several other growers and organizations do not use Monsanto seeds. But they were betting that the judge would agree that Monsanto should not be allowed to sue them if pollen from the company's patented crops happened to drift into their fields.
Instead, the judge found that plaintiffs' allegations were "unsubstantiated ... given that not one single plaintiff claims to have been so threatened." The ruling also found that the plaintiffs had "overstate[d] the magnitude of [Monsanto's] patent enforcement." Monsanto brings an average of 13 patent-enforcement lawsuits per year, which, the judge said, "is hardly significant when compared to the number of farms in the United States, approximately two million."
The company, meanwhile, asserts that it doesn't exercise its patent rights when trace amounts of its patented traits inadvertently end up in farmers' fields.
Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, told The Salt that Monsanto remains a "patent bully" and that the judge's decision was "gravely disappointing." The plaintiffs have not yet decided if they will appeal.
Much of the corn, soy, canola and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Among them, corn is the most likely to cross-pollinate with plants in nearby fields. That means that genes from genetically modified crops can drift or "trespass" into organic fields.
As Dan Charles reported last year, most organic corn in the U.S. typically contains anywhere from half a percent to 2 percent GMOs, according to companies that sell such corn to organic dairies or poultry farmers. It has been that way since genetically engineered corn and soybeans came into wide use more than a decade ago.
But organic farmers say that GMO contamination could hurt the value of their crop, and they fear lawsuits from Monsanto for possessing their GM genes without paying for them. The documentary Food Inc. portrayed the company as aggressively suing farmers who save its patented seed.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology in the 21st Century began discussing ways to protect organic farmers from contamination.
"Beyond whatever happens with this suit, there are some very legitimate issues behind it," Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells The Salt. "There is already a significant burden to organic food production, and there is more coming. It raises the question: Is it possible for organic agriculture to survive in the face of GM crops?"
Monsanto sees it differently, however. In a statement on the judge's decision, executive vice president David F. Snively said, "This decision is a win for all farmers as it underscores that agricultural practices such as ag biotechnology, organic and conventional systems do and will continue to effectively coexist in the agricultural marketplace."