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.

Crosscut archive image.

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

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.

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).” 

This past spring, however, some farmers started fighting back.

In March the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) hired a legal team and launched an attack against GMO behemoth Monsanto, bolstered by the support of a handful of other organic farms and companies. The case “asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto’s transgenic seed should land on their property,” according to OSGATA’s website.

Founded only four years ago, OSGATA is a membership-based trade association that promotes and protects the organic seed industry through education. Many of the farms involved with the lawsuit have been growing organically for years and use only open-pollinated ‘clean’ seed that they have specifically developed for their particular climate and region. As OSGATA sees it, seed is the foundation of organic agriculture and the purity of the seed is paramount. And while the current case takes clear legal target at claims of patent infringement, many of the farms involved are seriously concerned with the growing industry of genetically modified seed as a whole.  

As of yet there is no firm data on the long-term health effects of genetically modified organisms. Still, there are growing health concerns about Monsanto's pervasive use of Round Up Ready with its genetically modified seeds - a trademarked herbicide and a man-made poisonous substance that remains in soil and washes off into water after it has been applied. While the Environmental Protection Agency maintains that the toxicity of glosphate — Round Up’s main ingredient – is low, other studies have linked glosphate to non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other cancers. Last winter a concerned plant pathologist at Purdue University sent a warning letter to Secretary Vilsack about a new pathogen he found associated with Round Up Ready seed. 

And consuming genetically modified food is hard to avoid. Jim Gerritsen, President of OSGATA, asserts that “75-80% of all food products in the grocery have GMO content or derivatives. The reality is 300 million Americans are taking place in the world’s biggest guinea pig experiment.”

As a 2007 article in Wired Magazine put it, “a big chunk of all that genetically modified corn and soy go right into our processed foods and into feed for the animals we eat. So chances are, unless you are a raw or organic foodista, you ate a GM food derivative this very day.”

With these dangers in mind, OSGATA is setting a powerful new precedent for standing up to big agriculture. Rarely have so many small organic groups come together to work cooperatively: Heavy hitters within the organic industry such as The Center for Food Safety and the Demeter Association have joined regional associations such as the Organic Seed Alliance and Seeds of Change.

“The organic and non-GE farming community cannot continue to shoulder costs associated with contamination, including testing for contamination, reimbursement for eradicating unwanted GE material from seed stock, lost organic premiums, and other costs,” says Kristina Hubbard, Director of Advocacy & Communications at the Organic Seed Alliance based out of Port Townsend.

But if it’s change they seek, it seems likely that they will have to fight hard for it.

Even while on a scheduled call for this article, Gerritsen was in the process of filing a 135-page brief, writing and organizing a letter to the USDA and preparing another document to retaliate against Monsanto’s move to dismiss the case. [Update: When the Bangor Daily News in Maine reported on Gerritsen's ongoing legal fight with Monsanto, he was on his way to New York City's Zucotti Park for an event organized by Food Justice Committee of the Occupy Wall Street movement.]

Monsanto is clearly pushing back, but positive news continues to roll in. In July 2011 the Minnesota Court of Appeals allowed for it to count as “trespass” when pesticide drifts from one farm to another.  In the future, there may be an argument that the same ruling may apply to GE seed drift. This bodes well for OSGATA’s argument and in any future case hoping to seek legal rulings in support of organic farming practices. Still, while small gains in state courts may help, it seems likely the battle has only just begun.

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