Genetically Modified Showdown: Monsanto Sued by Organic Farmers

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Imagine if Apple tried to charge you every time you accidentally glanced at an iPhone on the street. That's basically the policy that Monsanto, an agriculture giant whose patented genes are in 95% of all soybeans and 80% of all corn grown in the U.S, enforces. The company is notorious for suing farmers that the company suspects of violating patents in even inadvertent manners. Monsanto has sued hundreds of farmers and received over $15 million from these patent-violation cases (PDF), which have included incidences of farmers being sued because pollen from nearby farmers' Monsanto-brand genetically modified crops blew over the fence onto their field. Now, finally, organic farmers are fighting back.

The lawsuit, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, was filed this week on behalf of 12 seed businesses, 26 farms and farmers, and 22 agricultural associations, all of whom question whether Monsanto should have the right to sue farmers for patent infringement if GM seeds inadvertently end up on their property. 

The suit, filed by the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), explains:

In the case, PUBPAT is asking Judge Buchwald to declare that if organic farmers are ever contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified seed, they need not fear also being accused of patent infringement. One reason justifying this result is that Monsanto's patents on genetically modified seed are invalid because they don't meet the "usefulness" requirement of patent law, according to PUBPAT's Ravicher, plaintiffs' lead attorney in the case. Evidence cited by PUBPAT in its opening filing today proves that genetically modified seed has negative economic and health effects, while the promised benefits of genetically modified seed --increased production and decreased herbicide use--are false.

Translation: According to the farmers, not only is Monsanto's patent policy out of control, but its patents aren't even useful in the first place--they're harmful. The lawsuit couldn't come at a better time for the organic farming industry; GM alfalfa, a crop whose pollen can travel via wind up to five miles, has been approved by the U.S government. And GM sugar beets, which can easily cross-contaminate with non-GM sugar beets, were also recently approved. Having protection against Monsanto's lawsuits will be a necessity for these farms in the coming years.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

[Homepage photo by Flickr user Mahalie]

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11 Comments

  • kristina martinez

    GOd made the seeds to sow, we plant, eat, share and get the seeds and so on and so on. If these greedy companies are faced with farmers that refuse to use or buy their products they would die out. Let's use our rights and what we know to be right and crush these greed mongers, and life destoyers. It is evil and out of bounds.

  • kristina martinez

    Why arent the organic farmers sueing monsanto for their genetically altered pollen ruining their organic crops. If the shoe fits!!!!

  • Nate

    This is not legal advice. I am not a lawyer.

    Before the substantive issues of this case will be considered, the Plaintiff's must satisfy a procedural justiciability issue; namely, that Monsanto has not alleged patent infringement against any of the plaintiffs. It is entirely possible that the Plaintiff's will have a difficult time showing that the case is ripe. Why would the Plaintiff's attorney's choose clients with such an glaring procedural weakness?

    This weakness provides the court with an easy out, without forcing it to address the substantive issue of patent infringement.

  • Nigel

    Most people don’t realize that the US patent office had as its policy never to patent “life” , but under pressure from General Electric who had a financial interest in Monsanto they caved. What’s also very troubling is that one of Monsanto’s seed patents. The “terminator seed” is jointly owned by none other than the US government! These seeds will not reproduce, forcing farmers to buy from Monsanto rather than use natural seeds as has been done for centuries, plus it requires the application of harmful and expensive herbicides (made from oil) in order to germinate. When you really look into it, the whole GMO seed business is terribly bad for human health and the environment. I really hope the Organic farmers prevail.

  • Shawn Kaplan

    I see this the other way...along the lines of what Kristin was saying.
    Organic crops are worth more per pound than the GMO products...so it's actually Monsanto's products which are polluting the Organic farm products! But ultimately life itself should not be patentable. It could potentially hurt the business of Monsanto...much as eliminating patents on drugs would take the wind out of the Pharma sails...but at an absolute minimum Monsanto needs to stop suing neighboring farms!

  • Don Jarrell

    I've worked in IP for quite a while and appreciate that some of the legal issues touching this case can get very sticky and very expensive. I am generally supportive of strong patent holder rights, but have been troubled by the "invading seed" scenario for some time. I think the wisdom of Occam's razor is very applicable here. I know Dan and appreciate his work, but attacking the fundamental issues of obtaining a patent is just a huge uphill climb, even though Dan has an impressive record of topping steep hills.

    In contract law, there is a nearly universal application of Force Majeure (freedom of liability for actions beyond a Party's control). To argue for the applicability of the Force Majeure *concept* (it is in a different base of law) as a defense in patent infringement, coupled to a provable set of facts that the presence of the GM DNA was too small to be meaningful, let alone beneficial, to the alleged infringer, would still be an uphill climb, but a smaller one. Cell and gene patents already have some slightly exceptional practices that don't necessarily spill over into other utility or system patents.

    It would require a case-by-case consideration and not create a broad precedent affecting all patent holders or the system itself - which triggers a blizzard of amicus briefs and increases complexity of crossed issues exponentially. There are a lot of decisions parsing Force Majeure from various levels of negligence, so one could not simply claim "the wind did it and I didn't know". This is by no means a complete answer (or legal advice of any kind; IANAL), but I think it si worth some serious consideration.

  • Oil Lady

    Dan, I would like to hear your opinion on the possibility that the Supreme Court might simply reverse the 1980 ruling which paved the way for these dispicable seed patents.

    As background for others here ... when the US Constitution was first drafted over 200 years ago, the portion of the Constitution which covers US Patent Law had a section which specifically prohibits patenting living things. The utter wisdom of making it impossible to ever patent living things made agriculture infinitely more simple for the first two centuries of our nation's history. Many scientists, farmers, breeders, and even hobby gardeners have over the years tried to get various plants and animals patented since the US Patent Office first started issuing patents. But all such applications had been blanketly denied because the Constitution was abundantly clear that no living thing can be patented. But then in 1980 via Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court caved in for the first time on this issue, and a lab-developed micro-organism became the first living thing to get patented. That opened Pandora's box. And we are now dealing with a Mount Evarest-sized legal mess from which there seems to be no escape.

    It would have been far better for the Supreme Court to have never made that disasterously unwise decision. But as a second choice, I'll happilly settle for the Supreme Court pulling a complete reversal and revoking the ability to patent life -- and revoking all such patents that were issued in the past.
    ted to the very existence of these accursed and (I will say it with no hesitation) unconstitutional patents.

    If reversing and revoking winds up infringing on other (valid) patents of the sort which have nothing to do with the odious (and previously unconstitutional) practice of patenting life, I would dearly like to hear how that is possible.

  • jordan quisenberry

    I don't really think you should be able to patent seeds/food in the first place. The idea that their pollen is "trespassing" should be addressed too. Along with the idea that a minuscule amount of their seeds in a crop allows them to sue the farmer is ridiculous. As this article seems to be leaning, the farmer who finds their sh!tty seeds in their crops should be suing Monsanto for contamination. As those crops (with GM food) can't be sold in the European market.

  • Stephan Goetschius

    I am not a legal expert, but my common sense wonders why Monsanto cannot be sued for pollution? Their product is infringing on another's property without permission.

  • Kristin

    I think farmers with contaminated crops should be able to countersue Monsanto for trespassing and damaging crops (particularly relevant for organic farms).