Posted on Fri, June 10, 2011 by Slow Food USA
14 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Farms and Farming, Food Justice, Labeling, News, Current Events,
While a cow or goat may respect a property fence, pollen knows no such boundaries. Even if a farmer plants a field of non-GMO (not genetically modified) corn, she may still end up with some genetically engineered material on her farm if GMO pollen “drifts” over from a neighbor’s field. Monsanto has a history of taking farmers to court if they’re found to be in possession of patented plant material without permission, even if the plant material came to their fields inadvertently.
But now, tired of living in fear of lawsuits that they claim are unjust, a group of farmers, seed savers, and farm advocates is challenging the agribusiness giant’s right to continue the practice.
We’re inspired by this landmark case and today we’re happy to have more background and perspective to share with you from one of the plaintiffs, Tom Willey. Tom is an organic farmer in Madera, California and a Slow Food USA regional governor. Here are some highlights from our conversation about why this case matters to him, to his fellow farmers, and to consumers in general.
What is your role in the lawsuit? Why did you decide to get involved?
There are too many people in the agricultural community being picked off one by one over this issue of their crops being contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Everyone on the suit is potentially liable to be sued by Monsanto. The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) initiated this suit to deny Monsanto the right to sue farmers for being inadvertently contaminated with GMO genes.
If you stand by and watch your neighbors being abused and don’t do anything to back them up, there may not be anyone there to help you. It’s very difficult for individual farmers to defend themselves from legal onslaughts from Monsanto so we thought we best go after defending the whole farming community as a group. Luckily PUPBAT has the resources to help us make that happen and hopefully we’ll prevail.
What would change for you if this lawsuit were successful? What would change for consumers?
It’s a two-pronged lawsuit. The most practical objective is to take away Monsanto’s ability to prosecute farmers for inadvertent contamination. If we were to win on the more practical end of it, we would have relief from concern about being prosecuted if our crops do end up being contaminated.
The second, “holy grail” objective, is to invalidate the patents Monsanto holds on these products. What the patents are resting on is that Monsanto’s GMOs are of “positive public benefit.” But we’re going to argue that the patents themselves should be invalidated. And if the patents themselves were invalidated, that would spell relief for the entire society.
If these patents were invalidated, these products would go away. Right now consumers are eating a lot of GMO products and aren’t even aware of it because the products aren’t required to be labeled. The public is being used guinea pigs for this technology, which is showing a lot of cracks. It’s not as benign as it’s cracked up to be.
What’s the status of the lawsuit? Has anything happened since it was filed?
When the case was filed, Monsanto came back to us with the stock statement that they have no intention of suing farmers when they have “trace” amounts of contaminated materials. Our lead attorney wrote a letter to Monsanto asking them to put that in a contractual form that would guarantee and indemnify farmers like the plaintiffs against Monsanto’s litigating when and if we are contaminated. And they refused to get more specific on that, and they refused to make anything contractual in that vein or to really define what they consider “trace” versus “significant’ contamination.
So as a result of that volley, our argument was amended to include that correspondence. This opportunity to file an amended complaint was also an opportunity to add about 35 more plaintiffs.
It will be a process. The law moves at a snail pace. We’re not looking for this to be resolved in the next six months. Something like this could even go to the Supreme Court, in which case it would take more like six years. At least now it’s going through the sausage grinder.
How can everyday people help?
Pubic pressure can have some beneficial effects in cases like this. We’re trying to spread the word about what’s going on here and what the core issues of the case are about, to engender a broader support from the public.
As [new GMOs] come out, it’s important to be aware and resistant. The public was promised [that GMOs would result in] higher yields but so far that has proved to be not the case. So far they’ve been convenience crops, so the farmer can grow more crops and use less labor. Ultimately they’re profit-generation tools to corporations like Monsanto and have no public benefit. So it’s important to keep an eye on future developments coming out of the GMO world.
The most important thing we need to do in this country is to get a GMO labeling law. If we were successful in doing that they’d be a lot less successful in marketing these products to our country. We could be lambs led to the slaughter without our awareness. That’s not what we’d expect in a democratic society.
Learn more about the case and the dangers that genetically engineered crops pose to organic farmers here http://www.pubpat.org/monsanto-seed-patents.htm
Photo by Kim Morris