Just when you thought the scandal surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops couldn't get any worse, breaking news of a novel pathogenic microorganism that might be linked to GM agriculture is spreading like wildfire across the internet. While you couldn't write a better sci-fi script if you tried, this research is potentially of grave concern. A senior U.S. soil scientist has written to the federal government about a novel microorganism apparently linked to GM crops that may have the potential to cause infertility and spontaneous abortion in farm animals, raising significant concerns about human health. The letter was written to the USDA in light of the then pending decision to approve Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa, which has been genetically modified to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Yet it appears that no official action was taken to investigate the research before the green light was given for commercial planting.
Earlier this week the Public Patent Foundation filed a law suit against biotech giant Monsanto on behalf of more than 270,000 plaintiffs – including thousands of certified organic family farmers, seed-saving organizations and farmer advocacy groups. The aim of this preemptive law suit is to prevent Monsanto from suing organic farmers and seed growers if their organic crops and seeds are ever contaminated by Monsanto’s GM crops.
Sounds an unlikely scenario? Well, when it comes to GM contamination I’m afraid that the “Polluter Pays Principle” flies out of the window. Monsanto has already taken aggressive legal action against hundreds of farmers across the U.S. (and beyond) for alleged patent infringements, in which the farmers are sued for allegedly obtaining GM seed illegally and planting it without paying Monsanto for the privilege. Intellectual property rights law means that Monsanto owns the genes it has inserted into its GM crops. So if Monsanto’s GM police (oh yes, they really do exist) subsequently find those genes in plants on a farmer’s field – and he or she has not legally purchased GM seed – then Monsanto can sue.
But while some farmers might illegally plant GM seed, this isn’t normally the case. Monsanto can sue even if the crops were contaminated through natural cross pollination from neighboring GM crops or if GM seeds were spread by contaminated agricultural machinery, for example.
Take Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who farms in Saskatchewan, Canada. Schmeiser had never purchased GM canola seed from Monsanto, yet the company took the 68-year-old farmer to court in 1999, claiming he illegally planted Roundup Ready canola without a license. Schmeiser refused to settle out of court like most farmers and insisted that any GM canola growing on his land was either spread by wind or by grain trucks traveling on roads adjacent to his fields. During the trial, Monsanto stated that it did not matter how the GM seed got into Schmeiser’s fields – it was still the company’s property and he had to pay a per-hectare technology fee. Incredibly, the courts ruled in favor of Monsanto, although Schmeiser didn’t have to pay Monsanto anything.
Is it just me or is this utterly absurd? If I flood my neighbors garden with heating oil, I have to pay to clean up the contamination. How can Monsanto demand technology fees where Monsanto products have contaminated other crops? Why on earth should anyone have to pay Monsanto for what is a wanton act of pollution? Yet when it comes to GM crops it seems that a “Pay the Polluter” principle applies – and Monsanto is laughing all the way to the bank.
So where does this end? Well, that’s the point of this new lawsuit. Despite doing everything they can to avoid it, members of the organic agricultural community are under increasing threat from GM contamination, which not only affects their ability to supply certified organic and non-GM products but also risks litigation for patent infringement. We know that soon after Monsanto introduced its GM canola, the contamination problems meant that growing canola was no longer a viable option for most organic farmers in the U.S. The same thing is happening with organic corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and now alfalfa, where contamination will limit anyone’s ability to guarantee a GM-free product. As a result, the organic community is taking a stand against the uncontrollable threat of GM contamination. And they are not alone.
U.S. consumers are finally waking up to the harmful effects of GM crops on their environment and their health. Demand for organic and “GM-free” labeled food is growing exponentially – “GM-free” was the fastest growing retail label claim in 2009. But the disturbing fact is that unless we can hold GM farmers and the biotech industry accountable for polluting the environment, the opportunity to grow organically will be lost forever. The fact is that Monsanto doesn’t want people to have the right to choose non-GM food on the supermarket shelves, and they are refusing to take any responsibility for the GM pollution they are causing out in the fields. Indeed, you might say it’s in their interest to eradicate organic and non-GM production altogether.
But what is most striking about this new lawsuit is that it questions Monsanto’s very right to claim a patent. For a patent to apply it must prove its usefulness under law. Yet despite all the hype, the truth is that GM is a failing and increasingly costly technology. After billions of dollars of investment, many of the original claims and promises made by the GM industry over the years have either failed to materialize or have been exposed as nothing more than lies. There is no scientific consensus that GM crops have delivered a general, sustained or reliable increase in yield; there is no consensus that GM crops have offered a sustained reduction in costs to farmers adopting GM crops; nor is there any consensus that GM crops have resulted in a sustainable reduction in pesticide use. Indeed, we now know that the amount of glyphosate usage in the U.S. has increased 15-fold since 1994. Despite claims that GM crops are safe, we know that the biotech industry use the very same intellectual property rights laws to prevent any independent scientific testing of its GM products – and the health risks are very real. That’s not to mention the increasing economic impact of GM contamination on organic and non-GM markets.
Is this really the type of farming we want? Or is this simply the future that Big Ag needs in order to survive? In my eyes this lawsuit isn’t just about protecting organic and GM-free farmers from the threat of unjust litigation in the event that their crops are contaminated by GM seed. This lawsuit is also about protecting our freedom as U.S. citizens to choose what we eat, and to decide how our food is produced. And this is why Animal Welfare Approved fully supports this lawsuit against Monsanto.