Only in a world where the stuff of life - seeds and the food that grows from them - has been altered in the lab with a gene gun and registered in a patent office - does this latest story make sense. It's about the food that most of us eat, knowingly or unknowingly, every day.
Half of America's cropland now supports genetically modified foods whose genetic makeup is not entirely plantlike anymore. Agriculture giant Monsanto owns the patents on this new generation of genetically modified or transgenic crops and has the power to prevent farmers from reusing its seed from year to year. But now a federal appeals court says Monsanto may not sue farmers growing non-genetically modified, often organic, foods whose fields might be contaminated by Monsanto's patented seeds.
Dozens of organic farmers, seed companies and farm groups like the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association had preemptively taken Monsanto to court, seeking assurance that the giant agribusiness would not sue them for having any GMO crops accidentally growing in their fields and challenging the very notion that any corporation should own a patent on life. While this latest appeals court has dismissed the OSGATA et al v Monsanto case, it notes that Monsanto has bound itself in court to not go after non-GMO farmers who didn't want their seeds in the first place.
The court document reads, in part:
"Monsanto is unaware of any circumstances that would give rise to any claim for patent infringement or any lawsuit against your clients. Monsanto therefore does not assert and has no intention of asserting patent-infringement claims against your clients. You represent that 'none of your clients intend to possess, use or sell any transgenic seed, including any transgenic seed potentially covered by Monsanto’s patents.'..Taking
your representation as true, any fear of suit or other action is unreasonable, and any decision not to
grow certain crops unjustified...While Monsanto’s representations are not a covenant not to sue, they have a similar effect."
The farmers' attorney, Dan Ravicher with the Public Patent Foundation, views the court ruling as a partial victory. "Before this suit, the Organic Seed plaintiffs were forced to take expensive precautions and avoid full use of their land in order to not be falsely accused of patent infringement by Monsanto. The decision today means that the farmers did have the right to bring the suit to protect themselves, but now that Monsanto has bound itself to not suing the plaintiffs, the Court of Appeals believes the suit should not move forward."
On the day the ruling came down, Dave Murphy of co-plaintiff Food Democracy Now reacted, "Today's ruling may give farmers a toehold in courts regarding the unwanted contamination of their crops, but it does not protect our food supply from the continued proliferation of Monsanto's flawed technology. The real threat of continued contamination of our nation's food supply was only highlighted last week when Monsanto's unapproved GMO wheat was discovered in an Oregon farmer's field more than 10 years after it was legally planted in that state." Monsanto said on its website regarding the GMO wheat incident, "Monsanto is taking the matter seriously and is cooperating with the USDA fully. We are conducting a rigorous investigation to validate the scope of and to address any presence of a Monsanto Roundup Ready trait in wheat."
contacted Monsanto for reaction to the recent appeals court ruling, and here is the company's response:
"The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has affirmed the 2012 District Court decision to dismiss the OSGTA lawsuit. The assertion that Monsanto would pursue patent infringement against farmers that have no interest in using the company’s patented seed technology was hypothetical from the outset – the Plaintiffs were unable to point to a single act of patent enforcement by Monsanto directed at any Plaintiff. The appellate court quoted established precedent that parties “cannot manufacture standing merely by inflicting harm on themselves based on their fears of hypothetical future harm.” The ruling today should bring closure to this lawsuit, described by the district court as a “transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.” The appellate court viewed the case similarly, stating “…we agree that there is no justiciable case or controversy.”"
While non-GMO farmers find some answers from this court case, they're still left with difficult questions of how they'll move forward in growing organic crops that ideally avoid even trace contamination by GMO seeds. And the consumer movement continues as Americans ask for the right to have labeling so they can know when they're buying and eating GMO foods.