Update: In late February, Judge Buchwald threw out the case, according to Business Week, saying "There is no evidence that plaintiffs are infringing defendants' patents, nor have plaintiffs suggested when, if ever, such infringement will occur."
Late last month in downtown Manhattan, Judge Federal Court Judge Naomi Buchwald heard the first arguments in OSGATA et al. versus Monsanto, a groundbreaking lawsuit brought by The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) on behalf of 83 farmer plaintiffs, who are “seeking court protection under the Declaratory Judgment Act, from Monsanto-initiated patent infringement lawsuits.”
A lawsuit protecting against future lawsuits? Understandable, considering that Monsanto employs a fleet of lawyers and took 144 farmers to court between 1997 and 2010 and settled out of court with over 700 more. Laying aside the question of whether it is ethical to patent seeds in the first place, let’s assume some farmers have saved seed and should be brought to justice for doing so, but this suit seeks to protect farmers whose crops are contaminated by seeds or pollen drifting onto their land, in effect contaminating their crops, for being sued by the biotech giant (talk about adding insult to injury).
Across the street in Foley Square, chilly morning temperatures didn’t stop several hundred from gathering in support of the farmers. In a citizen’s assembly organized by Food Democracy Now, Occupy Big Food and Occupy Food Justice, attendees heard from environmental journalist Simran Sethi, permaculture expert Andrew Faust and others. Organizers also created an informative spectacle in the form of a human timeline of Monsanto’s long, environmentally dubious history.
The OSGATA press release included statements from Dan Ravicher, lawyer for the plaintiffs:
“We were very pleased that the court granted our request to have oral argument regarding Monsanto’s motion to dismiss our case today,” said Daniel Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation, lead lawyer for the Plaintiffs. “The judge graciously permitted both parties to raise all the points they wished in a session that lasted over an hour. While Monsanto’s attorney attempted to portray the risk organic farmers face from being contaminated and then accused of patent infringement as hypothetical and abstract, we rebutted those arguments with the concrete proof of the harm being suffered by our clients in their attempts to avoid such accusations. The judge indicated she will issue her ruling within two months. We expect she will deny the motion and the case will then proceed forward. If she should happen to grant the motion, we will most likely appeal to the Court of Appeals who will review her decision without deference.”
And from OGSATA president, Jim Gerritsen:
"Our lawyer did a good job explaining the current injustice farmers face. We have a right to be secure on our farms and to be free from Monsanto’s GMO trespass. If we become contaminated by Monsanto, not only is the value of our organic seed crop extinguished but we could also be sued by Monsanto for patent infringement because their contamination results in our 'possession' of their GMO technology. We have farmers who have stopped growing organic corn, organic canola and organic soybeans because they can’t risk being sued by Monsanto. It’s not fair and it’s not right. Family farmers need justice and we deserve the protection of the court."
After the hearing, the plaintiffs crossed the street to a heroes' welcome. Dan Ravicher addressed the crowd, as did several organic farmers involved in the suit, and Dave Murphy and Lisa Stokke, co-founders of Food Democracy Now! (who have gathered over 100, ooo signatures in support of the plaintiffs). Lisa read a statement on behalf of Ecocentric Hero Joan Dye Gussow, professor of nutrition at Columbia University, longtime backyard gardener, outspoken critic of industrial agriculture and unofficial matriarch of the sustainable food movement. The statement Joan, who couldn’t make it that day, contributed – concise and powerful as ever – is below.
We will report on the next chapter of this story after Judge Buchwald decides whether the case will move forward.
Statement of Joan Dye Gussow to the Citizens' Assembly of Support for Family Farmers
It’s simple. I don’t want the companies who've already poisoned the earth and our personal environments with clever chemicals to own the genes of our crop plants and use them to threaten our farmers. They have already proved that they can’t be trusted with our future.
All organisms are embedded in ecosystems whose workings we only vaguely understand. Given the depth of our ignorance, it is shockingly risky to allow Nature to be treated as a Lego toy, replacing her parts at will. All the problems we predicted genetically-engineered organisms would create have occurred, insect resistance, weed resistance, toxic changes in the soil organisms. We have NO IDEA how much more Nature will tolerate.
Therefore, it is desperately important that farmers who wish to produce our food without genetically engineered seeds should be assured by law that they can do so. The law should eliminate the possibility that a farmer can be sued as the consequence of the uninvited trespass of GE organisms onto his or her farm. This suit must go forward in the courts. In the long run all our lives depend on it.