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Court's Monsanto Ruling Worries Maine's Organic Farmers
05/15/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Some organic farmers in Maine continue to worry they could be sued by Monsanto for patent infringement, in the event that their fields are accidently contaminated by the company's herbicide resistant seeds. Those fears gained new urgency after a decision this week by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the agribusiness giant. Justices of the high court ruled, unanimously, that an Indiana man violated patent law when he used already-harvested soybeans to plan additional crops, instead of buying new - and more expensive - herbicide-resistent seed from Monsanto. Jay Field reports.

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Two years ago, some organic farmers in Maine filed suit against Monsanto, citing fears that the company might come after them if Roundup-resistent seed found its way accidentally into their fields.

"There are various means of contamination - probably the most common means is when pollan is dispersed either by the wind or by insects," says Jim Gerritsen, who owns Wood Prarie Farm in Aroostook County. Gerritsen grows corn from organic seeds, near where conventional farmers are using Monsanto's patented corn seed.

"U.S. patent law makes no distinction as to whether you intended to have possession, or even whether you were knowledgeable of possesion," Gerritsen says. "Should we become contaminated by Monsanto's transgenic, patented seed, we are at legal jeopardy for being accused of patent infringement."

A spokesperson at Monsanto wasn't available for comment by airtime. But on its Web site, the agribusiness giant has a link to a document that lays out the rules it says it follows for investigating possible cases of patent infringement. The very last rule on the page reads: "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."

But Gerritsen and 82 other plaintiffs would rather get a protection order from a court, than risk taking Monsanto at its word.
"We are innocent people," he says. "We're not going after 1 cent from Monsanto. We simply want court protection, so that we would not have to defend ourselves from an aggressive bully with a full-time legal staff of 75.

Gerritsen says Monsanto has filed more tham 800 lawsuits against family farmers since the late 1990s. Many of them, like Hugh Bowman, are customers of the company. Monsanto has a patent on Roundup-resistant soybean seeds. But they're expensive, and Bowman, who farms in Indiana, was looking to save some money. So, instead of buying new product from the agribusiness giant, he got already harvested soybeans from a nearby grain elevator and used them to seed some additional crops he was planting.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that by doing that, Bowman had violated Monsanto's patent rights. In a press release, the company hailed the ruling. But Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, where Heather Spaulding is interim executive director, opposes the patenting of genetically engineered life forms.

"We're just always very concerned when there are industry strikes against farmers ability to save seed," she says.

MOFGA is also a plaintiff in the other lawsuit against Monsanto. A U.S. District Judge dismissed the suit last year at the company's request. But the farmers took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where it's still pending.


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