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    Best of 2011: Farmers to Monsanto: Save our seeds

    Eastern Washington farmers are increasingly worried about agricultural invasion from Monsanto's unwanted genetically modified and patent-protected seeds, which can threaten a farm's organic status and land them in court. Now a national coalition of independent farmers is fighting back.

    Four generations of Robinettes on Lazy R Ranch. Maurice Robinette is top right.

    Four generations of Robinettes on Lazy R Ranch. Maurice Robinette is top right. Lazy R Ranch

    Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of food issues.

    Lazy R Ranch sits just outside of Spokane and raises grass fed and grass-finished beef, as they have since 1937. This fourth-generation family farm is run by a father-daughter team and, while the ranch is not yet officially certified organic (the process requires three years of documented farming practices), they have been farming the land sustainably for many years. Still there is one thing that could put all of their work to achieve organic certification in jeopardy.

    “I am very concerned about genetically modified seed,” ranch owner Maurice Robinette explains. 

    For Lazy R Ranch to maintain organic certification, they must feed their cattle with organic feed — specifically alfalfa. Finding and growing organic alfalfa to feed his cattle, however, is likely going to get more complicated for Robinette in coming years.

    That's because genetically modified alfalfa is a patented GMO crop of Forage Genetics (owned by Monsanto Corporation), and in recent years it has been planted across a thousand acres of Washington — most densely in the Columbia Basin, Kittitas County, and down around Walla Walla.

    “I suspect contamination is inevitable,” laments Robinette. “Someone nearby will plant GMO alfalfa or someone will unknowingly sell me contaminated alfalfa and accidentally contaminate me. It is genetic trespass and there is nothing you can do about it — bees will pollinate wherever they want to. You can’t stop them.”

    In the event Lazy R Ranch is contaminated, Robinette would have to take extreme measures to eradicate the seed from his land; the mere presence of GMO seed on the ranch would threaten his organic certification.  “I’m worried that genetic trespass may result in a loss of my customers who buy my beef precisely because there are no GMOs in it,” stated Robinette. The ranch is his sole livelihood, and that of his family. 

    “I’d have to kill every alfalfa plant on the ranch and start over. Once it’s in the environment, it’s here. You can’t get rid of it.”

    Because Lazy R Ranch does not ‘own’ genetically modified seed, they could also face a patent lawsuit from  Forage Genetics, which is the world’s largest producer of alfalfa seed. Only an approved farm may purchase and plant GMO alfalfa from Forage and their website clearly states that “unlicensed commercial harvest, sale or uses of patent protected seed are violations of state and federal laws.”

    While seed varieties are not traditionally owned by individuals (any farm can plant a beefsteak tomato if so inclined), Monsanto is changing that. The corporation has been producing its own form of patented genetically modified seed since the 1970s. Today it is theleading national producer of patented GMO seed and provides technology in 90% of the genetically engineered seeds used in the U.S. Market.

    And Monsanto is serious about its patents – sometimes subjecting small farmers across the country to legal persecution for patent infringement. According to the Monsanto website, the company has filed suit against farmers 145 times in the United States. Of these, the company has proceeded through trial with eleven farmers — all of which were won by Monsanto. This does not, of course, include any farmers wherein an official suit was never filed. Some count these numbers into the thousands.

    The most well-known of these is likely Moe Parr, a seed cleaner from Indiana who was sued for saving Monsanto seed. His story was highlighted in the award-winning film Food, Inc as an example of the intense financial pressure Monsanto is capable of applying. Eventually, mounting legal fees and bills forced Parr to settle out of court. 

    Few if any farmers ‘win’ and they are often overcome by lawyer bills and legal fees. As Robinette puts it, “It is really frustrating to see them never lose. They have so much money and so much power and they hire the very best people and throw a lot of money at (these cases).” 

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