Thursday, March 31, 2011

Homegrown David versus Goliath: Organic Farmers Sue Monsanto

On March 29, 2011, Carolyn Raffensperger, Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, and co-owner of Kirshenmann Family Farm, published a press release announcing a class action lawsuit against Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified organisms (GMO's), brought in New York Federal Court.

The Plaintiffs [the people suing Monsanto] include 52 groups made up of thousands of organic farmers, seed growers, non-profits organizations and community coalitions, with over 270,000 individual members in the United States and Canada. They banded together in order to lessen the ‘David vs. Goliath’ nature of a legal battle against a multinational corporation with over $10 billion in sales a year.

The suit seeks to prohibit Monsanto from suing organic farmers if their crop is cross-pollinated in open fields by 'Roundup Ready' plants. Roundup Ready crops are genetically modified organisms (GMO's) that withstand Roundup, the company’s premier pesticide.

The suit seeks to redress Monsanto's ability to sue, distinct from many other concerns organic farmers have against them, because taking small farmers to court is tantamount to destroying them. It pits many (small) companies' right to do business one way (organics) with another (multinational) company's right to do business another way (GMO), in mutually exclusive processes. By definition, organics exclude genetically engineered crops, and vice versa.

This preemptive action on the part of the Plaintiffs highlights the plight of many small farmers who do not wish to use or consume genetically modified organisms, and whose rights are being abrogated.

Once GMO's have been introduced into an open field, their genetic matter cannot be controlled, pollen travels on wind currents or symbiotic insects to the surrounding areas, where uncontrolled pollination of similar non-GMO crops and weeds results.

Soil quality and insects are also negatively affected. Cross pollination impacts biodiversity in the area and the neighboring organic farmers must inevitably stop planting crops that can become tainted or lose their organic certification because their crops can no longer be classified organic.

To add injury to injury, Monsanto has a policy of suing farmers whose crops have been cross-pollinated by their GMO crops (through no fault of their own) and charge the affected farmers with patent infringement.

Individual farmers have no way of paying such a costly defense. In Mexico, this legal tactic has forced hundreds of indigenous farmers to go bankrupt and lose their farms, for an action they had no control over and no intent to fulfill.

With this lawsuit, organic farmers in the northern hemisphere are fighting to stay alive - not just as certified organic farms, but as economically viable businesses as well. They realize that with its outsized legal department, Monsanto could bankrupt countless small farms stateside as well.

Can the issues between organic farmers and Monsanto be solved?

In an email exchange, I asked Carolyn Raffensperger the following question:

Do you think that in a not too distant future, organic farms in this hemisphere will be safeguarded, scientists will have their drought resistant crops, and Monsanto will have addressed the issues of concern to organic farmers?

Carolyn Raffensperger’s answer:

“Two things in response. First, our farm really won't be able to function if they plant GMO alfalfa and wheat in our area because the out-crossing [uncontrolled pollination] will contaminate two of our big crops. We already can't plant canola, which we used to grow, because of contamination. We've lost sunflowers for other problematic farm policies. At some point our farm is no longer viable. We can't have a decent crop rotation without warm weather crops, cool weather crops, deep root and shallow root plants, etc. We've already narrowed the crops we grow because of GMO threats.”

“The lawsuit was brought because there was NO move to plan for co-existence. None.”

“Second, I flat out don't buy the argument that GMO drought resistant crops are the only answer. They might be one answer. But conventional breeding, open source breeding, and alternative crops are all answers.”

“Intellectual property and GMOs is not a viable approach to resilient communities because it takes control of seed and food out of the hands of farmers and communities. We belong to an open source farmer-scientist breeding project in the Great Plains. This is a much better answer to developing seeds that are locally adapted to conditions.”

Related Links: Read Anna Lappe's insightful article in The Atantic here, watch (free) The World According to Monsanto documentary here