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Seeds of dissent

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Articles - April 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012


These heirloom tomatoes are grafted onto a disease-resistant root to improve productivity in the greenhouse at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath. The farm is home to Wild Garden Seed.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
The New York courtroom was standing room only. On Jan. 31, outside in Foley Square in Manhattan, people were waving burlap sacks, bearing slogans like: “Seeds are a Human Right.” Inside, 55 organic farmers from 22 states, including Oregon, stood shoulder-to-shoulder asking for a day in court. A federal judge later refused to hear their case, which sought to revoke patents for genetically modified seeds from Monsanto. But back in the Willamette Valley, much is still on the line.

This is the latest in litigation, now headed to the Court of Appeals, to pit organic seed growers against purveyors of genetically modified Roundup Ready sugarbeet seeds, patented by Monsanto and bred to stand up to the potent herbicide while weeds succumb. They are the backbone of a lucrative business in the Willamette Valley.

The 83 plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim Monsanto’s patents on such products are a bully stick; wielded in lawsuits against organic farmers who say their land is contaminated by pollen drift from conventional farms. They claim crops are rendered worthless in a market with zero tolerance for GMO traits, and that farmers are abandoning some crops and purity testing others as GMO counterparts arrive, losing income. Brought by the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGATA), farms and other groups, the suit represents about 300,000 organic farmers, including Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Siskiyou Seeds in Williams and Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home.

“There are two ways that the organic growers can be protected from lawsuits,” says Sabrina Hassan, senior counsel at the Public Patent Foundation. “If the patents are invalidated, then Monsanto couldn’t sue anybody ... The other thing is the judge can issue a declaration saying these clients can’t infringe” because organic growers don’t want GMO products.

Frank Morton, who coordinates seed production at Wild Garden Seed and is a past president of OSGATA, says the lawsuit also has the potential to end hefty investments in GMO crops.

“I think one reason [genetically engineered] crops convey such power to the patent holders is because of the power of the patents to convince investors that this company has a good investment. Companies with a nice portfolio of GE patents impress investors on Wall Street. I think if those patents go away, that might change,” he says.

The litigation is significant for another reason. It’s led by Dan Ravicher, dubbed a modern “Robin Hood” by Science Magazine for fighting patents that fall outside the “public good,” magic words that squash patents under federal law. Ravicher is known for founding the New York-based Public Patent Foundation, which, with the ACLU, sued Myriad Genetics in 2009 for patenting genes for breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad won the case on appeal, which may now head to the Supreme Court.



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