A fight to maintain consumer choice and farm independence has landed Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen on Utne Reader's list of "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World," published in the November/December edition of the magazine on newsstands now.
Gerritsen, wife Megan, and their four children run the Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, which produces and sells organic seed potatoes to kitchen gardeners and market farmers in all 50 states. Gerritsen is also president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, and it was that role that led to the Utne recognition.
The nonprofit organization created a stir in food and farming communities when, with legal backing from the Public Patent Foundation, it filed a lawsuit in March against the chemical and biotechnology giant Monsanto. OSGATA has since been joined in the lawsuit by 82 other seed businesses, trade organizations and family farmers, which together represent more than 270,000 people.
The lawsuit questions the validity of Monsanto's patents on genetically modified seeds, and seeks protection from patent-infringement lawsuits for the plaintiffs should their crops become contaminated with Monsanto's transgenic crops.
"The viewpoint of Monsanto is that (in such a situation) we have their technology, even though we don't want it and it has zero value in the organic market," Gerritsen said. "We think they should keep their pollution on their side of the fence."
Laws prohibit certified organic crops from containing genetically modified ingredients, and Monsanto's patents prohibit farmers from growing its seeds unless purchased from the company. Yet pollen doesn't heed certification or patent laws, and regularly drifts from transgenic crops to contaminate nearby non-genetically altered ones.
To add insult to injury, Monsanto has a reputation for suing or threatening to sue farmers for patent infringement in cases involving its genetically altered seeds, action reported in numerous media outlets as wide ranging as the Columbia Daily Tribune, CBS News and the New York Times.
Despite this well documented legal tactic, Monsanto spokesperson Thomas Helscher stated in an email: "Monsanto has never sued and has publicly committed to not sue farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields. The company does not and will not pursue legal action against a farmer where patented seed or traits are found in that farmer's field as a result of unintentional means."
"Inadvertent" and "unintentional" are the key words here, but for farmers to prove that Monsanto's transgenic seeds are unwanted invaders in a court of law is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. A 2005 report from the Center for Food Safety, an organic-food and sustainable agriculture advocacy group, contends that Monsanto had at that time filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers. The report also contends that the corporation employed 75 people armed with a budget of $10 million devoted "solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers."
Pre-trial motions are still being filed in the lawsuit brought by OSGATA, with the most recent from Monsanto asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.
Helscher said the motion to dismiss results from the corporation's pledge to not sue farmers "where patented seed or traits are found in that farmer's field as a result of inadvertent means. Accordingly, there is no real controversy between parties and the OSGATA case should be dismissed."
Gerritsen views Monsanto's statements as part of a disinformation campaign designed to prolong the lawsuit.
"What they typically try to do is drag out lawsuits as long as they can, hoping the plaintiffs will run out of funding," Gerritsen said. He is confident OSGATA has the resources necessary to pursue this lawsuit for years, if necessary.
Unlike open pollinated crops such as corn and canola, which have suffered from widespread contamination by genetically modified seeds, potatoes remain relatively safe, Gerritsen said.
Monsanto developed multiple strains of transgenic potatoes in the 1990s under the name New Leaf. However, when major food companies such as McCain, which operates a french fry processing plant in Easton, and McDonald's rejected genetically-modified potatoes, Monsanto was forced to pull its transgenic strains off the market.
Gerritsen said the lawsuit will also seek to clarify what he sees as Monsanto's contradictory stance on its genetically modified seeds.
When arguing against labeling of transgenic food, Monsanto and other biotech companies claim that genetically modified seeds are substantially equivalent to traditional seeds. However, when seeking patents, the same companies claim the insertion of foreign genes creates unique seeds deserving of patent protection.
"Which is it?" Gerritsen asked. "It's one or other, but it can't be both. Is it the same? Or is it different?"
All genetically modified seeds are designed to do something different from the original seed. This can mean the modified seed will produce increased quantities of a particular substance inherent to the plant, manufacture chemicals foreign to the original plant, or withstand heavy applications of herbicides and pesticides manufactured by the same corporation seeking the seed patent.
Helscher said, "these genetic modifications in seeds do not significantly change composition, nutrition or safety of resulting food products and thus the food products are not required to be labeled." He did not comment on why seeds that he states do not contain significant changes from the originals would merit patent protection.
Despite Monsanto's legal muscle, Gerritsen remains convinced the current lawsuit will succeed. He also sees hope in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread rapidly around the world and has demanded an end to corporate greed and dominance.
"What I understand the Occupy movement to represent is resistance to the growing tradition of power concentrated in the hands of the few, which is most often corporations," Gerritsen said.
Citing the revolving door between corporations (including Monsanto) and the government agencies which purport to regulate them, Gerritsen said, "we basically have a dysfunctional government. The Occupy Wall Street concept is to try to give power back to the people."
In the same vein, the lawsuit against Monsanto seeks to restore the power of citizens and farmers to choose food free from genetically modified organisms.