Food Fight!

Listen to differing viewpoints. Discern. Seek to understand all sides of the issue. Don’t criticize until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. Listen some more. Ask questions. Be open-minded. Explore areas of mutual agreement. Listen again. Decide for yourself.

Seed Rage

This post is produced with the kind assistance of Native Seed SEARCH and the Arizona Farm Bureau. I reached out to both after reading this story on my facebook wall. In full disclosure, I am a donor to Native Seed and a member of the AZ Farm Bureau.

On January 31st, the Organic Seed Grower and Trade Association (OSGATA) and 83 other parties filed a lawsuit against Monsanto. OSGATA, et. al. v. Monsanto seeks to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers and certified organic growers who find their crops cross-contaminated by genetically altered seed. The case is also challenging Monsanto’s patents on “Roundup Ready” seeds – seeds which resist Monsanto’s own weed killer, Roundup.

A 7th generation farmer from Brown Summit, NC and a certified organic farmer, Mike Faucette feels that he is being threatened by pollen, wind and the growing encroachment of genetically modified seed. Mike Faucette joined this class action lawsuit against seed patents.

My research reveals this as a calculated move by OSGATA to throw a wrench in Monsanto’s march toward total market dominance. The attorney leading the charge has picked a specific point to attack that could set a precedence and help every organic farmer. Turning away much offered support, they have purposefully limited the plaintiffs to a manageble number.

According to the Public Patent Foundation, the organic plaintiffs were forced to sue preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed, something Monsanto has done to others in the past.

The Monsanto blog from last March addresses their position on some of these issues. “We’ve briefly read the allegations of the PUBPAT suit and press statement and find many of these allegations to be false, misleading and deceptive.” Briefly read juxtaposed a statement later in the blog that they are prepared to vigorously defend sounds like an oxymoron.

Monsanto lists as fact:  It has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise 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 practice of planting seed that has been genetically engineered to resist pests and weeds is not new. Those who advocate for genetically modified crops believe that they help farmers be more productive and guard against food shortages. So, has Monsanto exercised its patent rights against farmers? In the past 15 years, Monsanto has sued 144 farmers in 27 different states. Whether these lawsuits were for greater than trace amounts, I can’t discern but the stories made popular by investigative reporting lead me to think otherwise.

Not everyone agrees. My interpretation is that the farm bureaus are taking a neutral approach. They believe all farmers have a right to choose their seed, whether organic or biotech and frankly, this may be an area of common ground amongst the parties. At face value, that sounds reasonable but are there environmental implications that can’t be taken at face value?

Last February, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan took criticism for the agency’s decision to deregulate Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa seed. The agency determined that “Round-Up Ready” seed could coexist with organic seed stock. “What didn’t get a lot of media attention was the coexist strategies we examined, we are making sure that we are increasing the production of organic seed and changing our protocols. We’re bringing on additional protocols so that the seed remains true to site.”

Judge Naomi Buchwald heard arguments in the Southern District Court of New York. Now, she is deciding whether or not to allow the case to move forward – a decision will come at the end of March. Thepopulistfarmer points out an interesting interaction between Monsanto’s attorney and the Judge. Attorney Waxman said “The requested relief that all of Monsanto’s patents be declared invalid is not going to make it less likely that the traditional processes of cross pollinations and seed drift are not going to occur, and in fact if the patents are invalidated, there will be no private restraint against any farmer in the country with or without a license using transgenic seed.”  Judge replied “Actually, I never thought about that. Even if the patent was invalid, it doesn’t outlaw the product.”

My concerns:

  • We don’t know the long-term implications of genetically engineered crops.
  • Biodiversity is at risk. Today there are many varieties of seeds no longer in existence and we are beholden to groups saving seeds to keep others from extinction.
  • Cross-contamination can create economic issues for small organic farmers who may no longer be able to label their products as organic due to the unwanted presence of genetically engineered seed.
  • Without adequate labeling, I have to call manufacturers to find out whether or not the content has been genetically engineered.

Questions worth pondering:

  • Should companies be able to own and patent genetic material?
  • What are the coexist strategies for managing both genetically modified and organic crops? Who will bear the cost of management?
  • Why do the European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand require GMO labeling?

There is much riding on this complicated case.

Want to learn more?

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56 Comments

  1. Thanks for a reasoned discussion of an unreasonable corporation’s attack on food sovereignty.
    Have you seen this info – Roundup is so pervasive it’s now found in city folks urine: http://www.thegic.org/profiles/blogs/monsanto-s-roundup-in-city-dwellers-urine

    Reply
  2. Excellent post and great questions. While my gut instinct is to say that nobody should hold a patent on genes, and that it is ridiculous to allow Monsanto to sue organic farmers for patent infringement when their crops are unwittingly pollinated by nearby GMO crops, there is much at stake, and many different stakeholders whose interests need to be taken into account, and I don’t purport to know enough to answer your questions intelligently. I did hear a very interesting story on NPR’s Science Friday that talked about the pros and cons of GMO crops, which add more food for thought http://www.npr.org/2011/08/12/139579616/feeding-a-hotter-more-crowded-planet

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  3. It’s blank after want to learn more…?

    As I’ve stated previously, I’m opposed to patenting living organisms, whether goats, mice, fruitflies or rice. On the other hand, I think there are potential uses for GMOs that can truly benefit society. Unfortunately, the primary driver of most companies is profit; and yield drives many decisions in agriculture. Balancing the issues while protecting social and environmental health is difficult, especially given how little we know.

    On labeling, I think it’s at least partially a completely different food culture: in Japan and Europe, at least, I’ve always sensed a greater tie to the “cuisine” and tradition. I think both places have also been burned by technology in the past (nuclear energy comes to mind), and most of all, they have a philosophy of precaution rather than permitting things until proven dangerous.

    Reply
    • Yes, I do think this is where regulation comes in. Energy companies typically have to set aside part of their profits for demand side conservation so why not Monsanto? Why not have them set aside $ for work on keeping seeds pure and other research? I do agree that there are different food cultures but I was surprised that so many other countries require labeling.

      Reply
  4. I’m all about open communication and fairness, but there’s nothing reasonable about Monsanto’s acts of domination. I don’t have time to write a whole runaway train in reply, nor would anyone care to read it, but I absolutely believe it is abominable for any individual to claim ownership of anything offered freely by nature for all. If I litter, I get fined. If you contaminate my crop, isn’t that littering? Vandalism? Destroying my business? But amazingly, I’m the one to be penalized….

    I can’t plant what I want on my land because the surrounding farms are planting GMO corn & soy. I have to find alternative crops that won’t be affected.

    You’ll miss your organic milk when it’s no longer available and/or affordable because non GMO alfalfa is so dear farmers can’t afford it. Look then for the national organic standard to be lowered to accept GMOs, then who knows how low the standards will dip from there. People will barely notice because they don’t pay attention to such tiresome details and have now been taught that the green organic label = safe and that’s all they care to know.

    Unless Monsanto executives and legal council get dirty and experience their legacy firsthand, I have difficulty accepting their words as anything other than skillful (and very expensive) legal and PR maneuvering.

    I have never believed in too big to fail – I believe in too big to stay human. Listen to Percy Schmeiser, the canola farmer from Canada tell his story….

    Reply
    • I will look up Percy. The organic milk situation is one that I am concerned about and you’re probably right, standards will dip. That’s not benefitting anyone.

      Reply
  5. One more thing – what’s the pedigree of the Monsanto video? What’s it supposed to prove – sounds like a routine customer service call to me….. it’s almost insulting that they think a video like that is authoritative.

    With regard to the “interesting” exchange between Monsanto’s attorney and the judge, it’s true the drift won’t stop, but without the patent, Monsanto’s bullying tactics will. I can’t think of many benefits the patent offers to farmers.

    Reply
    • So, the Monsanto video is a routine customer service call. I was looking for material to present their side objectively. I think the Monsanto employee handled it pretty well regardless of how I feel about their product.

      Reply
      • I don’t know anything about that video or the phone call so don’t let me spread misinformation. I was only saying that when you compare the two videos, the first clearly outlines and addresses the arguments. The Monsanto video is just a friendly, experienced employee handling a customer inquiry.

        Sure he sounded knowledgable and kind which is why I’m sure Monsanto chose it, but his answers were deflective. He makes it all sound so reasonable and by contrast, detractors so militant and conspiracy-theorist.
        I have no doubt employees feel that way, but employees aren’t driving that bus…

        I was in sales for 20 years and handled many inquiries like that….

        Reply
        • I’m not sure they chose it but it’s all I could find to show their side of things. And yes, it’s someone who clearly does this for a job.

          Reply
  6. Renee

     /  February 19, 2012

    Excellent blog, Tammy, on such an important topic. I agree with Auburn Meadow Farm’s post that Monsanto’s bullying tactics need to stop.

    Reply
  7. Tammy, I absolutely love your opening sentences to this post! This is what I always try to do (although not always successfully ;)).

    For many years I’ve been very, very, very, very, very concerned about GMO foods. I think this probably mankind’s most serious invasion in and violation of nature, and I’m afraid that it may turn out that the spirits we summoned won’t leave us again. This development is irreversable because GMO seeds cross-spread on non-GMO fields, and nobody can calculate the potential harms of this “experiment” (I actually feel like a lab rat with this) – for the ecosystem, the further development or dying of species, and the animals and humans who eventually eat that stuff. There are no long-term studies, and the stuff is simply thrown on the market – wtf?!?!?!?!?!?!?! (Sorry for my swearing, but this really upsets me!)

    I remember my mom had watched a documentary in the German tv (which she also recorded for me then) about a scientist (his name is Arpad Pusztai, just researched that) who did studies with lab rats to investigate the effect of GMO feed. He said that it was possible (with some limitations) to make an inference from the lab rats to humans, and also calculate the corrensponding time span for humans (for rats this is much faster). After a time span of a few months, the rats who got the non-GMO foods were as healthy as before, but most of the rats who got the GMO foods were seriously sick. The researcher who did those studies was then fired and silenced. You can read the background here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pusztai_affair

    This was before the official labeling was introduced in the EU, and my mom got a list with those products that contain GMO foods, and we didn’t buy those anymore.

    Now, there are more studies showing high rates of infant death and organ damage in lab animals, e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/12/monsantos-gmo-corn-linked_n_420365.html – and I’d never, never easily buy a study that is funded by the company who produces the stuff investigated!

    Please don’t eat it! 8O

    Reply
    • At least you live in a country where you can see it more easily with the labeling.

      Reply
      • That is true – we have at least *some* labeling over here. But’s it’s not perfect. Overall, most foods aren’t labeled in practice. Some of them are labeled that they don’t contain GMO foods, but most don’t contain any information of that kind. It’s just not done.

        Also, the labeling is indeed confusing and ambiguous. For example, if you buy tofu then it might be labeled when the soy beans used are GMO. But when you buy something that contains soy sauce made with GMO soy, it’s probably not labeled because the soy sauce is just a condiment. Also, with some foods, certain proportions of GMO foods are allowed, and organic foods are produced without “any intention to use GMO foods” (whatever that means). So, it’s still hard to stay away from GMO foods completely, over here as well. The best chance you have is to buy most things from organic and local sources, so that you know where it comes from.

        Reply
  8. Monsanto is a BIG BAD BULLY. :-(

    Reply
    • One is certainly able to draw that conclusion. I really tried to find evidence that they aren’t but I just can’t find it. I understand the free choice issues but if those choices are contaminating other farms, it’s pretty tough for me.

      Reply
  9. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Just Label It campaign, but if not I suggest you check it out. http://www.justlabelit.org

    Reply
  10. great post! I personally believe that people should have choices, and that if we choose organic, we should be able to do so with confidence :)

    Reply
    • I do to Tandy and I don’t know that we’ll be able to do it with confidence. That is where I think the resources need to be spent.

      Reply
  11. Thank you Tammy, for bringing this all to us, to help us be informed and thinking.

    Reply
  12. Great post. Ultimately I share your environmental concerns about biotech plants, and your litigation concerns about biotech patent holders.

    Something else that concerns me about “RoundUp Ready” seeds: Monsanto like to position themselves as designers of products that can feed the world. But their technology isn’t designed to make plants resistant to pests, it is designed to make them resistant to another Monsanto product – making these seeds a means by which to ensure further sales of their own products, not a means by which to feed the world. Additionally, many studies worldwide have shown that populations starve not due to poor food production, but rather due to poor food security, i.e. distribution, accessibility, etc. People aren’t starving due to a lack of food in the world, but because food isn’t where it needs to be.

    Biotech science is most often thought of as a tool allowing us to pinpoint and eliminate the genetic code of dangerous things such as diseases. Some take this a step further and use the science to enhance and manipulate the genetic code of traits we like. By isolating the genes responsible for some cancers we may be able to help isolate their spread and cure people. On the other hand, by isolating the genes responsible for certain eye colors or body shapes we may be able to create “designer people.” While addressing disease seems strait-forward ethically (though there are differences regarding the use of stem cells), many moral issues arise when the enhancement and manipulation of genetic traits is discussed. What Monsanto (and others) have created is the flora equivalent of designer people. And depending on both your perspective and imagination, much like a great sci-fi novel armies of designer plants are systematically infiltrating and eliminating natural plants. Our great concern is the new world order that is being created, because ultimately every living thing relies on plants. Evolution, adaptation to environment, is what has allowed us to flourish thus far. Genetic manipulation is a means of leaping the subject many generations backwards or forwards, placing it out of balance with its environment in a specific way. The impact may be obvious (failed GMO experiments), or may be a ripple effect, the impacts of which are not yet obvious to us.

    One thing that is obvious to us: if we allow the world to be covered in “RoundUp Ready” seed, and then pour RoundUp herbicide all over the world, the many millions of tons of glyphosphate poisoning in our environment will kill us all. Our choice here truly is life and death; we can believe the happy marketing from the corporate giant that sues small farmers, or we can believe the scientists that aren’t funded by them. The choice seems clear.

    Reply
    • I thought of the isolating of DNA too – the patenting our own genes is obstructing helpful research through patents, fees and permissions too. I totally agree the technology is deserving of patent protection, but not the isolated dna.

      Manipulating breeding of animals has really taken it’s toll on the gene pool too. Great ideas, scary reality.

      Reply
    • Yes, I posted on food security and it is the issue – even here. I am very concerned about this march into an area not well thought out and in search of profit. I have heard that Clarence Thomas used to work for Monsanto and that he is hearing one of the cases.

      Reply
  13. I’ve certainly heard and looked into a lot of Monsanto’s policies, and they are certainly not being completely honest. They do come after farmers who have even small amounts of their GMO on their property. The cross pollination can have very detrimental affects on organic and even small time farmers crops that have been developed over many years. I’m glad someone is stepping up and trying to do something about it.
    Thank you for the post, but even more for posting both sides. I may not agree with how Monsanto acts, or the products they sell, but they certainly have a right to defend themselves too.

    Reply
  14. Julie-Ann

     /  February 20, 2012

    I recently heard Jim Gerritsen (the president of OSGATA) speak in Exeter, NH and I was struck by his humble passion and his sincere concern for small family farmers. When he was asked what we could do to preserve food sovereignty for all, he said the first thing to do was to start growing your own food.

    That is my plan. Growing my own food. As much as possible.

    Thank you for your article.

    Reply
  15. HI Tammy, I’ve returned to this post 3 times, to take in all the information. Kudos to you for taking on this topic, the mighty Monsanto–and all the confusing information that surrounds what they are doing. The argument has been made—over and over—that this is the only way to feed this world, otherwise there will be mass starvation. I don’t believe it. I don’t know that the argument has been proved—just stated. the mounting loss of biodiversity is more than we know, I fear.

    Reply
    • It’s longer than I typically try to write and I reorganized the information many times. I think what Rob suggests is more accurate that the reason people are starving is due to food security. Otherwise the world would be round up ready today and everyone would be fed. That’s not the case. I’m going to keep supporting the seed savers.

      Reply
  16. Jane Ward

     /  February 23, 2012

    I second that last comment – kudos indeed for taking on this topic. Many of the comments that follow the post include more information to look into and read up on, and I thank you for setting in motion so much discussion and thought. I feel slightly better informed on a very complex issue, or at least on my way to becoming better informed. Thanks to you and fellow readers!

    Reply
    • It’s a complex issue with many implications not discovered.I really hope it’s an issue that we can keep under control.

      Reply
  17. Fantastic post, Tammy. It is most unsettling when scientific developments get into the hands of businessmen and corporations; because their bottom line is so often profit. It seems hard that groups must struggle to introduce ethics and caution legally. Me? I wish OSGATA and its team Godspeed.

    Reply
    • Yes, I’m with you Kate. It seems like a stream of profit should be diverted into research and technology that would allow these two “seed camps” to coexist – if that is possible. It works in other industries; casinos have to put $$ into gambling addiction programs; electric companies set aside funds for energy efficiency.

      Reply
      • As long as our shareholder system is in place, corporations are legally responsible to deliver as much profit as possible. Check and see what your investments are supporting – not possible to truly serve two masters : )

        Reply
        • Yes, the corporation is beholden to the shareholder but in my opinion, that is where regulation (good, fair, thoughtful, well-vetted) should come in. I know that it is not all good and fair and thoughtful and well-vetted.

          Reply
  18. Yes, such a significant issue. I would add control of the food supply, period, to the list (not just for small organic farmers). In Wisconsin the raw milk battle is again heating up–another frontier for those who want choices beyond corporate food.

    Reply
    • We don’t have access to raw milk in my neighborhood and I haven’t read enough to know if I’d buy it anyway. And I’m using less and less of it.

      Reply
      • Access to raw milk isn’t about your wish to drink or not drink it. It’s about individual rights. If we all understood how the milk industry worked, everyone would want to buy milk direct from the farm.

        Pasteurizing your own milk is easy – not that anyone would tell you that. Your big processor brand milk is nothing like legal raw milk straight from a well run dairy. It’s kind of a shocking revelation how wimped out processed milk really is.

        Big dairy processors are like Monsanto in that they too are squashing small, sustainable farmers providing industrial alternatives to death.

        Sorry, you’re killing me with this one Tammy – I’ll get down from my soapbox and mind my own beeswax now : )

        Reply
        • I love your participation Jackie! I love your passion and your knowledge and that you are willing to share it. There’s so much I don’t know. What strikes me through all of these tough food issues is that individual rights really is a common platform and the place from which dialog should begin. I just read a great article about our food system this morning that I’ll email to you. Please don’t ever back down.

          Reply
  19. I suppose we’ve been so trained to shop for food by nutrient instead of ingredient and there are so many different colors of boxes, people have no idea how stable our farming systems are or are not. It all feels so abundant and diverse at the grocery store.

    Small farmers can only fight back when they have the support of eaters in their communities. It’s only sustainable if it’s financially sustainable too….

    Reply
  20. Wonderful, balanced post. Very thoughtful and thought provoking.

    Reply
  21. A great & interesting post, Tammy!
    I learned a lot!

    Reply
  22. Hey Tammy . . . I just forwarded you an e-mail from Green America on GMO’s and Monsanto.

    Then, I went to FB to tell you it was on the way and realized that the Tammy McLeod I befriended on FB some time ago was NOT you ~ that Tammy lives in Australia and uses LOTS of foul language. :lol:

    Reply
  23. I had an open mind many years ago when I first started researching Monsanto…But, the court proceedings of my mind have long since rested…Monsanto, with the help of the U.S. Government is Frankensteining everything into eventual sterility… I wrote a little poem in my “Poet Cafe” about them just a month or so back, while researching where all the Bee’s seem to be disappearing to, and finding that Monsanto is breeding some that will “Only” pollinate Monsanto seeded plants…anyway, I could go on, and on…and the town in Alabama…oh just google Anniston, Alabama, and Monsanto…

    But, now for the bad news…or depending on how one sees it.
    Solar Storm Tomorrow:
    http://sonsothunder.wordpress.com/2012/…/sunrise-may-turn-out-the-lights…

    Reply

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