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Mansfield-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co. owner Jere Gettle says organic farmers and heirloom seed distributors risk losing their livelihoods to seed-giant Monsanto.
Mansfield-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co. owner Jere Gettle says organic farmers and heirloom seed distributors risk losing their livelihoods to seed-giant Monsanto.

Mansfield seed company stands up to Monsanto

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In a classic case of David vs. Goliath, a group of “pure-foods” farmers and organic trade organizations are challenging in federal court the patents of Creve Coeur-based seed giant Monsanto Co. (NYSE: MON).

Among the Davids in the lawsuit is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co. in small-town Mansfield.

On March 29, New York-based Public Patent Foundation Inc. filed suit in the Manhattan federal district court as a pre-emptive strike to strip away the patent privileges of Monsanto and prevent the biotechnology company from suing farmers who wish to avoid using its genetically altered products.

Key to the battle are stiff winds that may cause cross-pollination between farms growing Monsanto seeds and organic or pure-foods farms, effectively leaving small farmers open to litigation.

“It has just become a bigger and bigger issue for farmers to be able to farm without worrying that if their crops get contaminated somewhere through the year they’re going to be sued,” said Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co., which is among 60 plaintiffs in the suit.

Monsanto officials have called the suit a publicity stunt to slow seed technology developments, and they’ve said a policy prohibits the corporation from suing over unintended cross-contamination.

Heritage seeds vs. GMOs
The small but growing pure-foods industry holds fast to heirloom seeds, which are defined by a lineage that is at least 50 years old and whose genes have not been altered.
On the other side are mass-produced genetically engineered seeds that proponents say produce higher yields.

To preserve the heirloom distinction of Baker Creek seeds, Gettle sends his corn varieties out of state for testing that costs up to $3,000 per year. “It’s just corn right now, but as more genetically engineered varieties come out, it will be more varieties we’ll have to test,” he said.

Gettle’s concerns come as his heirloom-seed business continues to flower. Baker Creek’s 2007 revenues came in at $750,000, and this year, with 90 percent of the seed-selling season over, he’s projecting revenues of $3.5 million.

Gettle said some of Baker Creek’s varieties have been grown for 1,000 years.

In recent decades, genetically modified organisms – those manipulated by humans – have taken hold, and since 1996, GMOs such as cotton, soybeans and corn have been regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Monsanto, a Fortune 500 company with 21,000 employees in 66 countries and $10.5 billion in fiscal 2010 revenues, is known for its genetically modified Roundup Ready herbicides and resistant seeds. According to the filing, Monsanto has 23 patents relating to its genetically altered products.

Gettle said it is disheartening to learn his testing has found that a crop from a supplier has become contaminated. For example, he had worked with an independent Missouri farmer that supplied seed for a variety of corn called Arkansas Red and White. Though Gettle said the farmer didn’t know of anyone near him growing corn, the red-and-white seed tested positive for genetic engineering – after two years of that seed testing negative.

“It’s very frustrating,” Gettle said. “We have to find suppliers from increasingly remote places, and it’s a struggle.”

Baker Creek spokesman Jerry Orton said the company receives heirloom seeds from 70 suppliers in 50 countries. He said a judgment in the group’s favor was vital to the future of the organic and pure-foods movements.

“Not only do large companies control the majority of the seed market in the United States and much of the world, they are also, in our opinion, taking actions against small farmers that have no validity,” Orton said.

According to www.monsanto.com, the company filed 144 patent infringement lawsuits between January 1997 and April 2010. Only nine of those went through a full trial, and Monsanto was victorious in every case.

Behind the crops
Crops can be genetically modified as herbicide tolerant, insect resistant or both. In 2010, according to the USDA, 93 percent of soybeans in the U.S. are herbicide-tolerant, known in the industry as “ht”; 78 percent of cotton is herbicide-tolerant, and 73 percent of the cotton produced is resistant to insects; and 70 percent of corn is “ht corn,” while 63 percent is considered “bt,” or resistant to insects through bio-technology.

According to the court filing, Monsanto’s control of the seed market is such that up to 90 percent of soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented genes.

Sabrina Hassan, senior counsel for the Public Patent Foundation, said the suit seeks to invalidate Monsanto’s patents by arguing against their usefulness.

“Every patent that is granted needs to meet certain statutory requirements, and one of those is utility,” Hassan said. “We are challenging the utility of these patents because we don’t think they are beneficial to society at all. In fact, we think they are harmful.”

The suit claims transgenic genes have harmed U.S. farmers before when a rice variety produced by Liberty Link rice, which had not been approved for human consumption, led to the contamination of the commercial rice supply. Economic losses in the 2006–07 crop years were estimated at $254 million, according to the claim. The filing also points to studies that report transgenic seeds have potentially severe negative health effects.

According to a statement issued by Monsanto, the suit’s accusations regarding the validity of its patents are false and serve to attract attention to the alternatives the plaintiffs promote. A Monsanto spokeswoman said the company would only issue a statement in response to the suit: “Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding patent validity are contrary to long-established legal precedent which supports the validity of Monsanto’s patents and others in the biotechnology field. The plaintiffs’ approach is a publicity stunt designed to confuse the facts about American agriculture. These efforts seek to reduce private and public investment in the development of new higher-yielding seed technologies.”

Monsanto said it would vigorously defend itself in the lawsuit, and it believes farmers using its seeds and those representing organic interests can co-exist. “While we respect the opinion of organic farmers as it relates to the products they choose to grow, we don’t believe that American agriculture faces an all-or-nothing approach,” the statement said. “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 farmers’ fields as a result of inadvertent means.”

A hearing on the case has not been scheduled, Hassan said.[[In-content Ad]]

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