Monsanto Allowed to Put Genetically Modified Food on Your Plate

Posted May 16, 2012 in Consumer Law by Ada Kulesza

Farmers, seed distributors and food justice organizations filed an appeal after their lawsuit against agricultural giant Monsanto was dismissed. More than 80 plaintiffs, including the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, say Monsanto’s domination over genetically-modified organisms (GMO) threatens the world’s food supply.

Because food companies aren’t required to label GMOs, you won’t know if the food you buy in a grocery store is genetically modified, or whether there are health consequences to eating it. Further, the wind can blow GMOs in your garden, making you liable to paying license fees to Monsanto.

Genetically modified food is everywhere since the modified seed was planted in 1996. It was a soybean injected with a gene from a bacteria resistant to Roundup weed killer. Farmers spray their fields with herbicide, killing everything but the genetically-modified crop.

Today, genetically-modified soy accounts for 85 percent of all acreage in the United States by 2004, as well as 45 percent of corn, 76 percent of cotton, and 84 percent of canola.  The Associated Press reports 90 percent of soy acres today are planted with genetically-modified crops. Nearly any soy product a consumer buys will contain GMOs, and the potential health consequences of eating them are unknown. But you’ll never know because labels indicating the presence of GMOs aren’t required.

Attorney Daniel Ravicher

“It is quite ironic that Monsanto is one of the only companies in America that does not want you to know you’re buying their product,” says attorney Daniel Ravicher, a lecturer at Cardozo School of Law and the director of the Public Patent Foundation, one of 270,000 individuals represented by the groups in the lawsuit. “So that has to tell you there’s something wrong.”

After quietly buying all but one of the nation’s largest seed companies in the ‘90s, Monsanto is now the nation’s second-largest seed company.

According to a report by the Center for Food Safety, Texas farmers say GMOs have pushed conventional seeds off the market. When farmers use Monsanto’s seeds, they’re kept under the corporation’s thumb.

Contaminated Corn

When a farmer buys a genetically-modified seed from Monsanto, he signs a legal agreement promising not to save his seed, forcing the farmer to buy new stock from the company every year.

If he decides not to plant GMOs, he has to be sure that none of last year’s seeds grow – even if they fell into the field during harvest, or if there are a couple left in equipment.

Anyone can be liable under the law. If pollen from a genetically-modified crop pollinates other crops, Monsanto can sue. This forms the basis for the lawsuit, which the judge dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

“The constitution says that the courts are only allowed to hear actual cases of controversy – not hypothetical disputes,” explains attorney Ravicher. Monsanto filed a motion to dismiss, which the judge granted.

In her opinion, Judge Naomi Buckwald writes, “Defendants have never filed a patent infringement suit against a certified organic farm or handling operation over the presence of patented traits in its operations …. Indeed, defendants have expressly declared that it is not their policy ‘to exercise patent rights where trace amounts of our seed … are present … as a result of inadvertent means.’”

News reports highlight Monsanto’s successful lawsuit against a seed cleaner who said he had no way to distinguish GMOs from regular soybeans.

Ravicher says that case, and others, show the judge’s statements are incorrect. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits. The giant has an annual budget of $10 million and a full-time staff devoted to investigating and suing farmers who don’t pay patent royalties. According to the Center for Food Safety, most people settle out of court because they don’t have the resources to fight, and the settlements are kept secret with confidentiality agreements.

In the ‘90s the company won a lawsuit against a journalist who did an investigation about the company’s growth hormones for livestock and got fired when Fox Corporation refused to air it. She filed a lawsuit and lost; the court said she had no whistleblower claim on Fox based on news distortion; falsifying news is not against the law. Dairies still don’t have to label milk from cows treated with growth hormone, and like GMOs, we don’t know the health consequences.

Patent Problem

In patent law, the question is, “Has a human being significantly changed what God gave us?” says Ravicher. “We agree with Monsanto that their seed is not natural. We believe that their seed is poison. It’s not the same as a seed from nature. It’s harmful. It’s bad technology. We don’t argue that it’s not patentable because it’s not created from nature. It’s very different from nature. It’s bad for society.”

Twenty-seven other countries farm GMOs: corn, wheat, soy, canola, cotton, tomatoes, papaya, cotton, potatoes and sweet pepper. If GMO pollen fertilizes a plant, each following generation will contain the modified gene – so GMOs will continue to spread.

California will become the first state to put a question about GMOs labels on its ballot this November.

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