GMO patents squeeze small farmers

As the GMO debate heats up in the Rogue Valley, large agricultural companies such as Monsanto, with its patents on popular genetically modified (GM) crops such as Roundup Ready soybeans, have more and more control over the nation’s seed supply.

The domination of the seed market by big agribusiness affects farmers growing GM and non-GM crops alike. Some farmers are concerned that seeds from nearby GM crops could contaminate their fields, threatening their organic certification or making them a target for a patent infringement lawsuit. Others worry that it will become harder to find non-GM seeds as GM seeds become even more widespread.

“GMO contamination and intellectual property laws for genetically engineered crops threaten the sustainability of our local economy and the purity of our food supply,” says local farmer Chris Hardy. He is an organizer and co-petitioner for GMO Free Jackson County, a group that is working to ban the cultivation of GM crops within the county.

GM crops are a type of genetically modified organism (GMO). They’re made using genetic engineering techniques that alter a plant’s DNA, giving it new traits such as the ability to thrive in different climates, produce added vitamins or minerals, or resist pests, diseases, or herbicides.

Genetic engineering is more precise than older techniques such as selective breeding, where farmers cross two plants with desirable characteristics, and mutation breeding, where a plant is exposed to radiation or chemicals to encourage genetic changes. That precision allows for modifications that would be difficult or impossible to make with older techniques.

GMOs have sparked controversy in the United States and other countries. Those in favor say that GM crops streamline agricultural practices and increase the food supply for a growing world population. Those against are concerned that GM crops negatively impact the environment and the long-term health of consumers.

Although other regions such as the European Union have adopted strict rules for labeling GM crops and testing them for safety, the United States has no such requirements. So far, grassroots efforts to require labeling or testing in the United States have failed.

The GMO controversy is about more than labeling or testing: it’s about corporate control of the seed supply. As a form of biotechnology, GM seeds are protected by intellectual property laws, which give patent holders broad authority to control how the seeds are used.

One popular GM crop is the Roundup Ready soybean. Produced by Monsanto, a large agricultural company, it’s resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. It lets farmers spray herbicides without damaging their crops, making weed management relatively cheap and easy. Introduced in 1996, Roundup Ready soybeans now account for 94% of soybeans in circulation.

Because Monsanto has patented the Roundup Ready soybean, farmers who purchase seeds from the company must sign a licensing agreement. They agree to use the seeds for only one season, to not give the seeds to anyone else for planting, to not save second-generation seeds for replanting, and to not use or distribute the seeds for breeding or research purposes.

Traditionally, farmers save seeds from a harvest for replanting, which saves them the cost of buying new seeds and reduces their dependence on seed vendors. Monsanto’s prohibition on replanting is designed to stop this practice, creating a steady stream of revenue from farmers who must purchase seeds from the company every year.

Under the licensing agreement, farmers are allowed to sell second-generation seeds to local grain elevators, where GM and non-GM seeds are mixed and sold in bulk without restriction. With the popularity of GM seeds, this practice makes it harder for farmers to avoid purchasing GMOs.

Monsanto takes what it calls “seed piracy” very seriously, investigating about 500 farmers each year for suspected infractions. The Center for Food Safety reports that by January 2010, Monsanto had filed 136 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its licensing agreement. The lawsuits involved 400 farmers and 53 farms in 27 states.

Of the 136 lawsuits, the vast majority were settled in Monsanto’s favor. 70 ended in recorded judgments against farmers totaling more than $23 million, with an average judgment of just over $170,000. 26 ended in judgements against farmers of undisclosed amounts. Thirteen lawsuits were dismissed and nine were ongoing.

Monsanto representatives argue that litigation is necessary to protect the company’s profitability and, by extension, its ability to create new biotechnology. The company’s profitability does not appear to be in danger. Forbes reports that for fiscal year 2011 – 2012, Monsanto earned $2 billion on $13.5 billion in sales, despite Q4 losses from one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl.

Here’s where things get sticky. A farmer can violate Monsanto’s licensing agreement without ever intending to plant GM seeds. Wind or wildlife can carry seeds into the fields of neighboring farms, where they grow among non-GM crops without the farmer knowing. This is called GM contamination.

Some farmers are worried they could be sued for patent infringement if GM seeds contaminate their fields. Expensive legal fees make it difficult to defend against a lawsuit, and if a court orders a farmer to pay monetary damages, the financial results can be devastating.

The possibility of GM contamination is especially troublesome for organic farmers. If contamination is discovered, organic farms can lose their government-issued organic certification as well as the premium price tag that goes with it. This doesn’t just apply to crops: GMOs in animal feed can contaminate organic meat, too.

“We have farmers under threat of losing their livelihoods because of multinational corporations here in the Rogue Valley growing genetically engineered crops,” says Chris Hardy of GMO Free Jackson County.

So far, farmers’ attempts to protect themselves from wrongful lawsuits due to GM contamination have been unsuccessful. In the case of Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 270,000 farmers representing about 60 farms, seed businesses, and organic agricultural organizations. Although none had experienced GM contamination, they wanted protection from being sued if contamination occurred. In 2012, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding the farmers’ concerns unreasonable. The case is being appealed.

Contamination isn’t the only GMO issue in the courts. Vernon Hugh Bowman, a farmer from Indiana, is challenging Monsanto’s prohibition on replanting. Bowman argues that Monsanto should not be able to control what farmers do with seeds after they are legally purchased.

As a loyal customer of Monsanto, Bowman bought Roundup Ready seeds every year for the primary growing season. Each year, he would attempt a second, riskier harvest using cheap seeds he had purchased from a local grain elevator, which were also Roundup Ready. Although he did not save the descendants of seeds purchased from Monsanto, he did save the descendants of seeds purchased from the grain elevator.

When Monsanto found out about Bowman’s second harvest, the company sued for patent infringement. A federal judge ordered Bowman to pay $84,000 in damages, and an appeals court agreed.

The Supreme Court will hear Bowman v. Monsanto in April. Their verdict will determine whether patent rights apply to self-replicating technologies such as seeds beyond their first generation.

As litigation continues, activists are working to ban GMOs at the local level. Members of GMO Free Jackson County collected more than 6,600 signatures supporting a measure to ban the cultivation of GM crops. Measure 15-119 will be on the ballot in May 2014. Members of GMO Free Josephine County are working on a similar initiative.

To learn more about GMO Free Jackson County, visit For more on GMO Free Josephine County, find them on Facebook.