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Plaintiffs Across the Country Band Together Against Monsanto

“Society stands on the precipice of forever being bound to transgenic agriculture and transgenic food.” So begins the amended complaint brought against Monsanto this month by the Public Patent Foundation, a public interest group representing 84 plaintiffs from New England across the country to the Pacific Northwest.

The complaint describes Monsanto’s “aggressive patent assertion behavior” and includes a number of anecdotes in which farmers have been sued by the biotech giant after transgenic seed was found on their farms.

Monsanto disallows any seed to be saved, as is traditional in farming practices, forcing farmers to purchase new seed every year, along with a technology fee.  Published reports and Monsanto’s own statements suggest that roughly 500 farmers are investigated for patent infringement every year. Farmers who are found with transgenic seed on their land, even if its existence is unknown and unintended by the farmer, are often brought to court.

In a story published by CBS News in April of 2008, David and Dawn Runyon explain the harassment they were subjected to by Monsanto.

The Runyons charge Monsanto sent investigators to their home unannounced, demanded years of farming records, and later threatened to sue them for patent infringement. The Runyons say an anonymous tip led Monsanto to suspect that genetically modified soybeans were growing on their property.

“I wasn’t using their products, but yet they were pounding on my door demanding information, demanding records,” David said.

In fact, in Feb. 2005 the Runyons received a letter from Monsanto, citing “an agreement” with the Indiana Department of Agriculture giving it the right to come on their land and test for seed contamination.  Only one problem:  The Indiana Department of Agriculture didn’t exist until two months after that letter was sent.

Then there’s 74-year-old Mo Parr, a seed cleaner; he is hired by farmers to separate debris from the seed to be replanted. Monsanto sued him claiming he was “aiding and abetting” farmers, helping them to violate the patent.

“There’s no way that I could be held responsible,” Parr said. “There’s no way that I could look at a soy bean and tell you if it’s Round-up Ready.”

And this is part of the complaint being brought by plaintiffs who are afraid to suffer the same fate.  The only way to discern the difference between conventional and transgenic seed is through genetic testing, a costly procedure to farmers. If transgenic seed is discovered, it’s extremely difficult to eradicate, as contaminated seed must be destroyed and farmers lose all use of their fields for several years.

The complaint also asserts that Monsanto has failed to follow through on its promises. One such broken promise is that of increased production quantity. In a study published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in April 2009, no meaningful improvement of production was found. (“This report is the first to evaluate in detail the overall, or aggregate, effect of GE after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization in the United States. Based on that record, we conclude that GE has done little to increase overall crop yields”.)

Unfortunately, not a lot of research can be done on transgenic seed. The complaint asserts that this lack of research is “solely the fault of Monsanto” and its seed patents, which allow it to prevent third parties from performing research without Monsanto’s permission.

Another broken promise is that of less pesticide use. In a paper published by C. Benbrook, Ph.D, titled Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, he finds that farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides over the last 13 years as a result of planting genetically engineered seed. This increased used of pesticide has resulted in, and is the result of, increased weed resistance.

Other concerns of transgenic seed and increased use of glyphosate are studies that show associations with animal miscarriages and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Many countries throughout the world, including Germany, Japan, France, and municipalities here in the U.S. have outright banned transgenic seed or have severe limitations. At the very least, most countries have labeled such products, allowing the consumers to make educated purchase decisions.

Are we to be bound forever to transgenic seed? Will traditional farming practices be lost forever? It seems like the country is waking up to the possibility. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

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