Seeds of dissent

Seeds of dissent

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Italian peppers are sown for seed and sold by Wild Garden Seed. Peppers produced by the plants are also sold at Gathering Together Farm, at farmers' markets and to restaurants.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Whatever the outcome of the Monsanto litigation — no doubt years ahead — it has influence in the Willamette Valley, where the organic seed industry does a $35 million annual business in worldwide exports. Similarly, the area’s sugarbeet seed producers, primarily West Coast Beet Seed and Betaseed, supply half the sugar farms in North America, a business valued in excess of $100 million a year.

Morton says winning the lawsuit won’t help him soon. Since Roundup Ready sugarbeets were planted in the Willamette Valley, Morton says he has lost tens of thousands as buyers headed elsewhere amid rumblings that his land has been contaminated.

“I grow table beets and I grow Swiss chard. Both of these are the same species of the sugarbeet, there’s no difference. These plants can freely cross pollinate,” says Morton. He now spends $300 to $900 a crop verifying the organic content of his seeds and has abandoned some breeding projects.

Farmers around the nation echoed those issues in the OSGATA litigation. And bigger than the threat of new costs and cross pollinaton is a fear of lawsuits, one they say is increasingly suffocating amid heightened risks and small margins.

OSGATA purports Monsanto has filed 144 lawsuits nationally against farmers in two years, while settling another 700. Monsanto disputes that it has ever sued farmers over chance outcrossing, only license violations — either use of patented seeds without permission or seed saving, which the company prohibits, a claim that New York federal Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald found to be true.

“Monsanto never has — and has committed it never will — sue a farmer if our patented seed or traits are found in his field as a result of inadvertent means,” says Tom Helscher, director of corporate affairs at Monsanto, who responded via email.

Jim Gerritsen, a Maine farmer who is president of OSGATA, says Monsanto’s unwillingness to sign a deal protecting organic farmers has a chilling effect. “Even if we believed them, what would prevent them from waking up tomorrow and changing their minds?” he says, adding organic farmers need clear information about business risks.