Our cover story last week identified a southwest Missouri seed company involved in a pre-emptive lawsuit against Creve Coeur-based seed giant Monsanto Co.
The suit seems to be a symptom of the much broader chronic debate between biotechnology companies using genetically modified organisms in seed production and pure-food farmers bent on planting only heirloom seeds with genes untouched by humans or chemicals.
Reporter Brian Brown’s story, “Mansfield seed company stands up to Monsanto,” about Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. et al versus Monsanto, covers the idea that farmers could be held liable for patent infringement by large seed companies should strong winds move pollen from patented seeds into their fields.
Monsanto (NYSE: MON) fell under public scrutiny following the 2008 documentary “Food Inc.,” which offers a broader understanding and some shocking claims of cutthroat measures within agribusiness, including the treatment of animals during growing and production for food. On the crop side, the film paints a dark picture of the $10 billion global seed company and its practices against small farmers who don’t buy its genetically modified seeds.
For thousands of years, the film states, small farmers would save their best seeds and replant them the next year. But a 1980s Supreme Court decision permitted the patenting of life.
“Monsanto is very much like Microsoft,” says Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in the documentary. “The same way Microsoft owns the intellectual property behind most computers in America, (Monsanto) set out to own the intellectual property behind most of the food in America.”
The recently filed lawsuit claims 90 percent of soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented genes.
The film claims Monsanto has a team of private investigators who chase seed-saving allegations. “If you save your own seed, you’re going to get a call from Monsanto,” Roush says.
One clip tells the story of a farmer who continued to plant conventional soybean seeds; one day, his fields became contaminated by genetically modified seeds. “My neighbors all around me are all GMOs. If the pollen goes in, if the seed blows in, I am still held accountable,” farmer David Runyon says, adding that if discovered by Monsanto, farmers must prove they did not violate Monsanto’s patents.
The company’s frequently asked questions page at www.monsanto.com/food-inc
says “the burden of proof is on Monsanto to investigate the legitimacy of these claims and to resolve the issue as quickly and fairly as possible, which usually does not lead to litigation. It is patently false that Monsanto sues farmers for the accidental presence of our technology in their crops.”
As documentaries tend to be one-sided and grinding a certain ax, I don’t think Monsanto’s positioning in “Food Inc.” is fool-proof truth. But I do appreciate the light it sheds on the U.S. food supply and how it causes us to think twice about the products we ingest and the places from which we buy.
It’s going to be a tough row to hoe for Baker Creek and the other 59 suit plaintiffs, as they seek to protect farmers from patent infringement suits by Monsanto and like bioengineering companies. Winds of change have blown through crop farming since 1996, when GMOs were first regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and patenting of seed life began. The farmers just want some protection.
Baker Creek owner Jere Gettle is doing his part to push the use of heirloom seeds, his bread and butter.
“We feel that life, and in particular our food, should be patent-free, and we should be able to save and preserve our own seed,” Gettle says in an introductory video at www.comstockferre.com
His efforts are taking root in the publishing world. Gettle inked a deal last fall to write three books about his work for publisher Hyperion, beginning with “The Heirloom Life Gardener” scheduled for release Oct. 4.Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at email@example.com.