Appeals Court binds Monsanto in promise not to sue organic farmers
A three-judge panel at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Monday (June 10) that a group of organic and otherwise non-GMO farmer and seed company plaintiffs are not entitled to bring a lawsuit to protect themselves from Monsanto's transgenic seed patents.
That's "because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not 'take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes (because, for example, some transgenic seed or pollen blew onto the grower's land).'"
In the ruling issued Monday in the case Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. v. Monsanto, the Court of Appeals judges affirmed the Southern District of New York's previous decision that the plaintiffs did not present a sufficient controversy to warrant adjudication by the courts.
However, it did so only because Monsanto made repeated commitments during the lawsuit not to sue farmers with "trace amounts" of contamination of crops containing their patented genes.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), views the decision as a partial victory.
"Before this suit, the Organic Seed plaintiffs were forced to take expensive precautions and avoid full use of their land in order to not be falsely accused of patent infringement by Monsanto," said Ravicher. "The decision today means that the farmers did have the right to bring the suit to protect themselves, but now that Monsanto has bound itself to not suing the plaintiffs, the Court of Appeals believes the suit should not move forward."
The plaintiff farmers and seed companies began their legal battle in March of 2011, when they filed a complaint against Monsanto asking for a declaration that Monsanto's patents on genetically engineered seed were invalid or unenforceable.
The plaintiffs were compelled to file the suit because Monsanto's patented plants can crosspollinate neighboring fields through various means including wind and insects.
The owners of those fields, such as these plaintiffs, can then be sued by Monsanto for patent infringement.
The Organic Seed plaintiffs' complaint detailed Monsanto's litigation tactics and detailed Monsanto's history of patent enforcement, going so far as investigating as many as 500 farmers each year for patent infringement.
"Even though we're disappointed with the Court's ruling not to hear our case, we're encouraged by the court's determination that Monsanto does not have the right to sue farmers for trace contamination," said Maine organic seed farmer Jim Gerritsen, president of lead plaintiff Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
"However, the farmers went to court seeking justice not only about contamination, but also the larger question of the validity of Monsanto's patents. Justice has not been served."
The court is relying on Monsanto's promise not to sue farmers for unintentional contamination.
"Today's ruling may give farmers a toehold in courts regarding the unwanted contamination of their crops, but it does not protect our food supply from the continued proliferation of Monsanto's flawed technology," said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, an interest group that was a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"The real threat of continued contamination of our nation's food supply was highlighted last week when Monsanto's unapproved GMO wheat was discovered in an Oregon farmer's field more than 10 years after it was legally planted in that state," said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!.
The discovery of GMO contamination sent shockwaves through the Western wheat growers community and resulted in Japan and South Korea temporarily halting the acceptance of American wheat imports.
Despite the Court of Appeals' Decision, the plaintiffs still have the right to ask the Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision and ultimately reinstate the case. Ravicher said the Organic Seed plaintiffs are considering doing so.