by Avery Yale
November 9, 2011
potato farmer Jim Gerritsen
heads a trade
association that is suing chemical giant Monsanto.
Photo by Charlotte Hedley
MONSANTO - A
MONSANTO HAS BEEN raising the ire of concerned citizens
since the days of its involvement in nuclear weapons
development and its manufacture of the pesticide DDT and
the dioxin-laced defoliant Agent Orange. DDT has since
been banned in the U.S. Meanwhile, the legacy of Agent
Orange sprayed on the people of Vietnam during the
Vietnam War lingers on in higher rates of genetic
diseases and shockingly deformed stillborn babies.
AMERICAN SOLDIERS serving in the Vietnam War also suffer
from health problems linked to their exposure to Agent
Orange and other warfare chemicals. Both Vietnamese
victims and U.S. soldiers have filed class-action
lawsuits against the companies that manufactured Agent
Orange, including Monsanto.
MAINERS WILL REMEMBER the lawsuit Monsanto filed against
Oakhurst Dairy when the milk processor began labeling
its products as free from the corporation's synthetic
bovine growth hormone. The lawsuit was settled out of
court, with Oakhurst agreeing to add a statement saying
the Food & Drug Administration finds no difference in
milk from cows treated with the artificial hormones.
THESE DAYS, Monsanto is known for its genetically
modified seeds, some of which create plants that can
withstand heavy applications of Monsanto's herbicide
Roundup. While purchasing Roundup requires no special
license or training, independent scientists are
discovering adverse health and environmental effects
that appear to be linked to this chemical. Recent
studies have suggested a link between Roundup and soil
degradation, human cell death, infertility and a new
AIDS-like disease in genetically-modified plants.
MONSANTO IS CURRENTLY under investigation by the
Securities and Exchange Commission over alleged
financial kickbacks offered to pesticide dealers to
encourage them to sell more Roundup
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 (OSGATA), 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
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,
Despite this well documented legal
tactic, Monsanto spokesperson Thomas Helscher stated in an
"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
The report also contends that the
corporation employed 75 people armed with a budget of $10 million
"solely to investigating and
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
Unlike open pollinated crops such as
corn and canola, which have suffered from widespread contamination
by genetically modified seeds, potatoes remain relatively safe,
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
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.
"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.