Wednesday, March 30, 2011

US farmers sue Monsanto

US farmers sue Monsanto over GMO patents, demand right to conventional crops
By Catherine Saez
Intellectual Property Watch
March 30, 2011

The Public Patent Foundation filed suit yesterday against Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seeds with farmers asking to be protected against the biotechnology giant’s potential lawsuits in case of accidental contamination from plants grown with its seeds.

On behalf of 22 agricultural organisations, 12 seed businesses and 26 farms and farmers, the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) is suing the biotech company in the federal district court in Manhattan and assigned to Judge Naomi Buchwald.

The organic plaintiffs had to pre-emptively protect themselves from potential patent infringement in case of accidental contamination of their crops by genetically modified organisms (GMOs), said PUBPAT.

“This case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto’s transgenic seed should land on their property,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s executive director and a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. PUBPAT is a non-profit legal services organisation based at Cardozo law school. Its stated mission is “to protect freedom in the patent system.”

“It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of our clients,” he said in a press release.

According to the lawsuit, “coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seeds.”

“History has already shown this, as soon after transgenic seed for canola was introduced, organic canola became virtually extinct as a result of transgenic seed contamination. Organic corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet and alfalfa now face the same fate, as transgenic seed has been released for each of those crops,” it reads.

In a published commitment on farmers and patents, Monsanto states in Article 10 that, “We do not exercise our patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in a farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.”

The plaintiffs are largely organic farmers and organic seed businesses, but also include non-organic farmers who nevertheless wish to farm without transgenic seed, the lawsuit [pdf] says.

Through the action, plaintiffs are asking that farmers whose crops are ever contaminated by Monsanto’s transgenic seed should not be sued for patent infringement.

The plaintiffs also claim that “in addition to the economic harm caused by transgenic seed, it also has potentially severe negative health effects. For one, the design of Monsanto’s transgenic seed is purely so that it will be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. This means that as Monsanto’s transgenic seed becomes more widely used, then so too will glyphosate.”

They said many countries, such as the European Union members, required clear labelling of transgenic food or ingredients, but that “Monsanto has fought vigorously to defeat any proposal for labelling of transgenic food in the United States.”

Monsanto began applying for patents on glyphosate tolerance in the mid-1980s, say the plaintiffs, the first patents on the trait were granted in 1990 and are now expired. The plaintiffs claim that Monsanto continued to seek and receive patents on Roundup Ready technology for over two decades. They find that “Monsanto unjustly extended its period of patent exclusivity by duplicating its ownership of a field of invention already covered by other Monsanto patents. Monsanto’s transgenic seed patents are thus invalid for violating the prohibition against double patenting.”

According to the PUBPAT release, many of the plaintiffs made statements upon filing of the suit. For example, Jim Gerritsen, a family farmer in Maine who raises organic seed and president of lead plaintiff Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association based in Montrose, Colorado, said: “Today is Independence Day for America. Today we are seeking protection from the Court and putting Monsanto on notice. Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers stops here. Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and organic crops ends now. Americans have the right to choice in the marketplace – to decide what kind of food they will feed their families.”

Ed Maltby, executive director of plaintiff Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) said, “It’s outrageous that we find ourselves in a situation where the financial burden of GE [genetically engineered] contamination will fall on family farmers who have not asked for or contributed to the growth of GE crops.”

David Murphy, founder and executive director of plaintiff Food Democracy Now said, “None of Monsanto’s original promises regarding genetically modified seeds have come true after 15 years of wide adoption by commodity farmers. Rather than increased yields or less chemical usage, farmers are facing more crop diseases, an onslaught of herbicide-resistant superweeds, and increased costs from additional herbicide application.”

“Crop biotechnology has been a miserable failure economically and biologically and now threatens to undermine the basic freedoms that farmers and consumers have enjoyed in our constitutional democracy,” Murphy said.

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