In our Fields and On Our Plates: Challenging Monsanto’s GE Patents

By Lauren Ketcham

EcoWatch Journal

Monsanto has created some of the world’s most dangerous and controversial chemical products, including DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, known as rBGH or rBST.

In 1976, Monsanto launched its glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup, which quickly became the world’s most popular herbicide. In 1996, Monsanto engineered plants with glyphosate-resistant genes, allowing farmers to spray Roundup onto their fields during the growing season without harming the “Roundup Ready” crop.

Promised higher yields, labor savings, and lower weed pressure, genetically engineered (GE) seeds have been widely adopted by U.S. farmers. Over 80 percent of the soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola now grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented genes.

Non-GE seeds and crops are vulnerable to contamination at almost every step of the production process: from seed drift or cross-pollination, by coming into contact with contaminated harvest and post-harvest equipment, or during processing, transportation, or storage.

Despite this, Monsanto zealously enforces its seed patents. Monsanto investigates approximately 500 farmers each year for patent infringement. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits against farmers in 27 states for alleged patent infringement. And, Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million and a staff of 75 devoted to investigating and prosecuting farmers for “seed piracy.”

Challenging Monsanto’s Practice of Intimidation

This spring, on behalf of 83 family farmers, seed businesses, and organic agricultural organizations, including the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed suit against Monsanto. The case, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, was filed in federal district court in Manhattan.

The plaintiffs, representing more than 270,000 individuals, are preemptively asking the court for protection from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s GE seed

The suit also challenges the validity of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready patents under both statute and case law precedent requiring patented products to demonstrate clear social utility and not be dangerous to health.

The specter of GE crops and seeds contaminating the non-GE food supply continues to grow, particularly since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently deregulated Monsanto’s GE alfalfa and sugar beets and Syngenta’s GE corn, designed for biofuel production.

The deregulation of alfalfa is particularly dangerous since it is the nation’s fourth largest crop, planted on over 21 million acres of land. Alfalfa is used in many organic farmers’ crop rotations and is the key feedstock for the dairy industry. Because GE crops are prohibited under the organic label, if organic fields are contaminated or organic livestock consume contaminated feed, a farmer cannot sell those products as organic.

The Dangers of GE Food

Beyond contamination and the threat to our food supply, GE foods present many ethical challenges. Seed, once common property of past, present, and future generations, has been privatized, patented, and made into a corporate intellectual property right. GE seed commodifies life and turns a renewable resource into a non-renewable, non-reproducing product.

GE foods have also not been shown safe to eat. The scientific literature on long-term human safety is divided, but many of the studies arguing that GE food is safe were conducted by the biotechnology companies that commercialized the seed. Monsanto has used their patent rights to systematically prevent rigorous independent scientific research on GE foods.

GE seeds are also directly responsible for the increased use of pesticides and herbicides. Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, endocrine disruption, multiple myeloma, DNA damage, immune suppression, and miscarriage.

Finally, much like the overuse of antibiotics has created antibiotic-resistant super germs, the pervasive use of glyphosate has created herbicide-resistant superweeds. Farmers are now having to resort to more labor-intensive weed management strategies and more toxic and complex mixtures of herbicides to combat these weeds.

How to Avoid GE Food

Because there is no requirement to label GE products, the best way to avoid GE food is to buy organic because organic farmers are prohibited from using GE seed or livestock feed. Look for the organic label and support farmers who are growing food organically and preserving heirloom seed varieties.

For produce, a savvy supermarket shopper can also use information on the product’s Price Look-Up (PLU) code. According to the International Federation for Produce Standards for bulk produce, if the PLU code begins with 9 and has five digits, it is organic. If it begins with 8 and has five digits, it is genetically modified. Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables have a four digit PLU code.

Finally, the Non-GMO Project offers a rigorous third-party verification system for labeling products “Non-GMO Project Verified,” which a growing number of companies are choosing to participate in.

Lauren Ketcham is the Communications Coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). For more than 30 years, OEFFA has used education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic food systems, helping farmers and consumers reconnect and together build a sustainable food system, one meal at a time. For more information, go to www.oeffa.org.