Organic Farmers Succeed Despite Federal Court Defeat

No, that is not a typo in the title. It is easy to label the ruling by a Federal District Court in New York dismissing the organic and conventional farmers’ lawsuit against Monsanto as a loss. In a sense it is because many farmers, consumers and advocates were hoping for a different outcome and the possibility of getting legal protection against Monsanto, which a successful outcome of this case could have provided.

Occupy Our Food SupplyFurthermore, the coincidental irony of the decision being handed down on February 27, the Global Day of Action To Occupy Our Food Supply, a day designated by the Rainforest Action Network to raise awareness and to end “corporate exploitation of our food supply,” does not escape us. Despite plaintiffs’ and their attorney, Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), determination, the Court found that plaintiffs’ allegations were “unsubstantiated … given that not one single plaintiff claims to have been so threatened [by Monsanto].”

In a press release, Monsanto celebrated the legal success as an apparent vindication of company’s position and business practices.

While organic and conventional farmers may have lost this legal battle against the corporate giant (for now anyway), in a very real sense the farmers and ultimately the consumers still walk away with a victory on their hands.

The galvanizing movement occurred last year, when the plaintiffs, which represented over 300,000 people, filed a lawsuit seeking legal protection against contamination by genetically engineered (GE or GMO) seeds manufactured by the Big M and the invalidation of certain of the company’s patents. Monsanto’s seed market infiltration is so high that over  85­-90%  of  all soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola grown in the U.S. contains Monsanto’s patented genes, noted the plaintiffs’ amended complaint.

Maybe because the lawsuit involved farmers with stories to tell and people to feed, or maybe it was the filing of a lawsuit at the right time when more people were becoming aware of the chain of inequality that starts from the seeds and ends at the table, from the very beginning, this lawsuit attracted more mainstream attention.

That’s good for you and me and not so good for Monsanto.

Undoubtedly, the ruling has left many dissatisfied. Echoing the sentiments of many plaintiffs’ and their supporters, Mr. Ravicher told me that the Court’s “decision to deny farmers the right to seek legal protection from one of the world’s foremost patent bullies is gravely disappointing,” noting that the Court’s “belief that farmers are acting unreasonable when they stop growing certain crops to avoid being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement should their crops become contaminated maligns the intelligence and integrity of those farmers.”

But biotech supporters should hold their applause and organic supporters and anti-gmo advocates should not despair because despite the legal loss, the lawsuit, even if not appealed, leaves a beneficial legacy.

The lawsuit, for example, shined a much needed light on the real problem facing organic and conventional farmers who eschew genetically engineered seeds. Farmers who wish to grow non-gmo crops are at a constant threat from contamination and must go to extraordinary lengths to protect their crops or abandon growing certain crops altogether. “Non­transgenic crops are vulnerable to contamination by transgenic seed at almost every step of the production process: before seed is purchased; through seed drift or  scatter; through cross pollination; through commingling via tainted equipment during harvest or post­ harvest activities; during processing; during transportation; and during storage,” noted the complaint. For these farmers, contamination was not an academic question but a serious consideration so much so that their farming methods were impacted, their sales, trading and certifications (in the case of organic farmers) were threatened, their livelihoods and the choices they make about the seeds they grow shrunk, ultimately adversely impacting the availability of healthy food for consumers. Additionally, “contaminated farmers risk potential legal liability for alleged patent infringement.” Just ask Percy Schmeiser.

The lawsuit lit up the blogosphere and there was coverage in mainstream media, such as the New York Times and the L.A. Times, discussing the lawsuit and Monsanto’s corporate practices, which many see as abusive and exploitative.

The complaint in the case alone could serve as rallying cry for a change in the way food is made in America. As one author recently noted “Big Food has attained phenomenal and destructive power over what we eat — our diets, our health and the planet.”

The lawsuit also contributed to the organization of communities and people and fueled a host of #Occupy food movements already simmering world wide (e.g., #OccupyBigFood, #OccupyOurFoodSupply #OccupyMonsanto, #OccupytheSeed, etc) as it underscored the many undemocratic and unsustainable features of the current food production system. On the day of oral argument in the lawsuit, hundreds of people assembled in New York City to support plaintiff farmers. The demonstrators “collaborated to create an amazing timeline of the atrocities that Monsanto has committed over the years, from 1901-2011 and had comrades hold them in a visual sign of solidarity.”

The case has also fueled a desire among consumers to support those farmers who avoid using genetically engineered seeds.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, whose organization, Navdanya International, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and who often connects the dots between corporate ownership of the seed to the democratic rights of people, recently argued in an article entitled, Occupy Our Food Supply, that:

The biggest corporate takeover on the planet is the hijacking of the food system, the cost of which has had huge and irreversible consequences for the Earth and people everywhere.

From the seed to the farm to the store to your table, corporations are seeking total control over biodiversity, land, and water. They are seeking control over how food is grown, processed, and distributed. And in seeking this total control, they are destroying the Earth’s ecological processes, our farmers, our health, and our freedoms

Monsanto may have won a legal battle but it has lost in the court of public opinion, and isn’t that ultimately where bottom lines are determined? Raising your forks in protest and voting with your wallets is not a new idea and one which takes time to percolate and take effect. And the author and award winning journalist, Christopher Cook, is probably right that “[w]e need a radical overhaul of our current food and agriculture system — and of how our tax dollars are spent on food.” But the method is tried and true and tested over time and every time we put food in our mouth we are casting a vote for or against BigFood.

Mr. Ravicher told me that the Court’s  opinion “is flawed on both the facts and the law,” and plaintiffs are considering an appeal.

A tweet from #OccupyBigFood amptly noted on the day of the decision, “[d]isappointing but it’s just more reason to #occupybigfood.”

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  • B.J. Murphy

    I’m just as much against big agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, but the latest failure by a coalition of organic and non-organic farmers to sue the company just comes to show the lies and misleading nature behind the anti-GMO movement. A coalition of 300 farmers and seed producers, both organic and non, pressed a legal suit against Monsanto on the alleged contamination of their crops by one or more of Monsanto’s 13 patented transgenic seeds. The conclusion? The judge shot it down. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because NONE of the coalition of 300 farmers and seed producers attained a SINGLE crop in which was contaminated by ANY of Monsanto’s transgenic seeds. A few had claimed some of their crops in the past were contaminated, but was never specified as being a GMO seed contamination in which was patented by Monsanto. In fact, with the billions of farms located nationwide throughout the country, it would be asinine to conclude that Monsanto’s 13 patents play a “significant” threat to said billions of farms. As had been revealed by the 300 farmers and seed producers of attaining not a single crop contaminated by Monsanto’s transgenic seeds, they then purported that the company delivered “threatening” language against them regarding any unintentional contamination of their crops, via wind drift, by any of Monsanto’s transgenic seeds, that is when/if it ever actually occurs. The judge had then investigated the matter, in which was pointed to the so-called “threatening” language being purported: “In its entirety, the purportedly threatening language reads: “It has never been, nor will it be[,] Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds ortraits are present in [a] farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.” (Chachkin Decl., Ex. O.)” is then followed by, “It is objectively unreasonable for plaintiffs to read this language as a threat.” I agree. Another contradiction found in the coalition of farmers and producers’ suit by the judge was their complaint of not wanting to use, nor sell, any transgenic contaminated crop, despite, 1) they’ve already expressly made clear they –weren’t– going to sell the crops anyways, in which Monsanto’s policy of inadvertent contamination has no problem with this, and 2) given their active attempts in avoiding any usage of transgenic seeds, they still assert that they may “unknowingly” use –significant quantities– anyways. Completely nonsensical through ‘n through, in which the judge points out very clearly in his statement: “..the notion that plaintiffs, who are actively attempting to avoid the use of transgenic seed, may nevertheless find themselves unknowingly utilizing it in significant quantities strains credulity.”Again, I agree. The judge had every right in throwing this lawsuit into the garbage where it belonged.

  • Jeff from Australia

    You know what the sad thing is about all this is?  The majority of the general public just don’t care: as long as there is food to eat and it is cheap food, they are happy.  Monsanto  know this as do the big retail chains who buy food from china because local products are too expensive. It all about profit not about good food… people are happy because they have a full belly without spending a kings ransom… so if you really care buy local, and encourage your local supplier to not spray they products. Monsanto won’t die, big retail won’t go away because people will do what their wallets dictate, and really most of the population just don’t care.