On Monday, a federal appeals court dismissed organic farmers’ lawsuit against the biotech firm Monsanto Company — but extracted a binding promise from Monsanto that they would not sue farmers whose crops were inadvertently contaminated with their product. Monsanto, which owns the patents to the vast majority of genetically modified staple crops in the U.S., devotes $10 million a year and a staff of 75 specifically to investigate and sue farmers who use their GM technology without paying royalties. To date, they have pursued more than 800 patent infringement cases.
Organic farmers sued Monsanto in 2011, fearing the company could unleash their enormous legal power on farmers whose crops were accidentally contaminated with their patent-protected technology. Given that seeds are scattered easily by wind, animals, and birds, traces of genetically modified DNA often intermingles with non-GM crops. A study of non-GM crops in the U.S. found that 50 percent of traditional corn seed, 50 percent of soy, and 83 percent of canola was contaminated with GM material.
The DC Circuit Court of Appeals tossed the suit against Monsanto, but emphasized that there was no issue because Monsanto had made binding assurances that it will not ‘take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes (because, for example, some transgenic seed or pollen blew onto the grower’s land).”
The farmers’ attorney, Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation, heralded the decision as a step in the right direction. “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,” he said. “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.”
However, the decision still leaves organic farmers unprotected from financial ruin if GM contamination disqualifies their crops from organid and other specialty market certification. The USDA has also shrugged at the risk to non-GM farmers, advising only that they buy insurance to protect against nearly inevitable losses.
As the Center for Food Safety notes, many farmers have had to simply give in to GM crops after contamination: “In some parts of this country and Canada, conventional and organic farmers alike have lost premium markets as they have been forced to sell contaminated crops into the genetically engineered crop stream.”
In general, the rest of the world’s vehement opposition to GMOs and Monsanto has essentially sealed off foreign markets for conventional and organic farmers in the U.S. Most recently, farmers’ lawsuits against Monsanto are piling up after unapproved GM wheat contamination caused several countries to turn away their imports last week.