EDITORIAL: These genes come with wrinkle

THE UNUSUALLY WARM WEATHER we’ve had off and on this winter conjures thoughts of relaxing on a lawn chair, watching the garden grow. But think of the flip side of that daydream: the weeds, insects and now, the corporate seed police.

As science and technology advance, this country has embarked on a great experiment with our food supply: just think of the “improved” tomato with the gene of a fish shoe-horned into each seed. Someday soon we’ll cultivate zucchinis that look and taste just like a Hostess Twinkie. Mmmmmm.

Not everyone sees this as progress. Some would rather grow and eat the types of food our bodies became accustomed to over millions of years of evolution. They raise wholesome food, some of it according to organic or biodynamic standards, and they’re worried they could be put out of business by the Monsanto Company. One of the farmers who shares this concern spoke last weekend at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville, where about 20 people gathered to hear what he had to say about a lawsuit against the company scheduled to be heard in federal court in New York City next week.

In one sense this civil case has more to do with intellectual property rights than farm produce. But of course it’s really about money. The suit was brought by over 80 plaintiffs, leading off with an organic growers group and including small farmers like Don Patterson, the Virginia farmer who visited Hawthorne Valley. The case was prepared by the non-profit Public Patent Foundation, and it asks a judge to revoke Monsanto’s patents on genes that go into “transgenic seeds”–seeds that have genes grafted into their DNA through human engineering. Monsanto owns the patents on a lot of these genes.

If you’re wondering whether this suit is a scheme by a bunch of “food nuts” paranoid about competition from a respected agribusiness corporate citizen, consider corn. Cows eat a lot of corn; people do too. Farmers grow plenty of it in this county. Seeds for some types of corn contain genes patented by Monsanto, which controls patents in as much as 85-90% of the U.S. corn seed market, according to the suit.

If you don’t want to grow corn with transgenic genes–sometimes called genetically modified corn–don’t use Monsanto seeds, right?

Wrong, say the plaintiffs. They point to cases where pollen from a transgenic crop has spread to plants grown from organic seeds. In that case, subsequent organic harvests may contain some transgenic plants without the farmer knowing it. The suit alleges that Monsanto has forced farmers who didn’t want transgenic crops to pay the company its patent license fees. In some cases, the farmers were driven out of business, say the plaintiffs.

They asked Monsanto to sign an agreement saying the company would not seek to enforce its patent rights against them, since none of the plaintiffs would ever intentionally use transgenic seeds. Monsanto’s lawyer declined the offer.

The company says the plaintiffs have lied about Monsanto and its seeds, and besides, the company has issued a pledge that says it is not Monsanto’s policy to enforce its patent rights where “trace amounts of our patented seed or traits are present in farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.”

The farmers and growers don’t buy that, because Monsanto will not say how many ears of corn equals a “trace amount” nor will it say how the company determines whether patented genes got there inadvertently.

There’s no way to predict what, ultimately, will happen with the suit. But reading the plaintiffs’ case, available online at www.pubpat.org/assets/files/seed/OSGATA-v-Monsanto-Complaint.pdf raises troubling questions about the true costs of contemporary corporate agribusiness, not to mention the health impacts of transgenic food.

Mr. Patterson and the other plaintiffs believe expressions of public support for the suit can affect the outcome. With that in mind, some local folks are organizing a bus to take supporters of the plaintiffs’ case to the court hearing in Manhattan early Tuesday morning, January 31. To learn more contact Gianni Ortiz at or 518 392-8545.

Since some crops that sprout in Columbia County fields this spring will probably carry Monsanto’s patented genes, and some of those genes will probably contaminate fields where non-transgenic crops grow, Monsanto could enforce its patent rights against farmers here. We can all hope this giant corporation will treat our farmers fairly. But a court order would be a much better remedy than hope alone. 

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