I have wanted to catch up with Bridgewater organic farmer Jim Gerritsen ever since he was named in October to the 2011 list of 25 visionaries who are changing the world by the national magazine Utne Reader. When I finally succeeded last weekend, he was on his way to New York City to give a speech and participate in the Dec. 4 rally and “Farmers’ March” to Zuccotti Park organized by the Food Justice Committee of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Gerritsen, 56, who with his wife, Megan, and their family has operated Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater since 1976, is on a mission that has put him in the national — and international — spotlight. As president of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, the trade organization for the organic seed industry, he is the lead plaintiff in a suit to protect growers and consumers of organic foods.
The defendant is Monsanto Corp., world leader in production of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, intended to increase yields of herbicide-resistant crops — crops that can withstand sprays such as Roundup that kill the weeds around them. Airborne or insect-borne pollen from these transgenic, or gene-spliced, crops can do irrevocable damage to organic seed crops. But loss of crops is only the beginning.
“Farmers lose not only the value of the organic crop, but we are also open to patent infringement lawsuits,” Gerritsen said “Monsanto can contend that the (organic) farm is in possession of a (patented) Monsanto product.”
To date, Monsanto has sued 90 American farmers for patent infringement, receiving an estimated $15 million for judgments in its favor, according to the Center for Food Safety. Many cases have been settled out of court with farmers bound to confidentiality. Monsanto dominates the sale of seed stocks worldwide, especially corn, soybeans and cotton, and sends private investigators to farms suspected of replanting saved seed.
Hence, the legal action, OSGATA v. Monsanto, has captured the attention of international media, but mostly the alternative press in the United States — until Monday, that is, when Gerritsen’s role in Sunday’s Farmers’ March was reported in the New York Times under the headline: “A Maine Farmer Speaks to Wall Street.”
Gerritsen heads OSGATA, based in Montrose, Colo., which is leading 83 plaintiffs in the case against Monsanto. The individual farmers, seed companies and agricultural organizations that have signed onto the case represent about 300,000 members nationwide.
“Monsanto is trying to achieve seed control based on aggressive assertion of patent infringement,” Gerritsen said, explaining that the farmers’ lawsuit has two goals: to protect organic farmers against patent infringement lawsuits and to challenge the validity of patents issued to Monsanto.
“Organic farming is predicated on the concept of crops free of GMO content,” he said, noting the irony of a suit against a farmer by the company that has destroyed that farmer’s crop.
“If organic seed is contaminated, there is no way to grow nongenetically modified crops,” he said. “The outcome will be either seed controlled directly by Monsanto or contaminated by Monsanto.”
If the 83 plaintiffs led by OSGATA are successful, Monsanto would be forced by the court not to sue farmers whose crops are contaminated by the corporation’s product. When lawyers for the farm groups — working on a pro bono basis — requested such a guarantee, Monsanto refused.
“They are reserving the option to go after those farmers,” Gerritsen said, adding that Monsanto filed a motion to dismiss the case last July. “We need to get the court to protect farmers from invasion, trespassing and patent infringement. We are anxious to get into court.”
If the plaintiffs achieve their second goal, the court will agree that the U.S. Patent Office erred in granting Monsanto patents for crops that do not fulfill the “social utility” standard, which requires that a new invention will result in some “social good.”
Gerritsen faults not only the U.S. Patent Office, but also the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which accepted Monsanto’s claim that GMO products are “substantially equivalent” to traditional seed and need not be labeled. Thus, consumers can’t know what foods have been grown using GMO technology.
“They can’t have it both ways,” he said, questioning the awards of patents for products because they are new, which then evade labeling because they are not new.
“President Obama promised mandatory labeling of genetically modified products and we must hold him to that,” Gerritsen said, acknowledging a possible challenge: The current deputy commissioner of the FDA, which regulates labeling, Michael R. Taylor, is a former vice president of Monsanto.
Gerritsen said the plaintiffs hope the case will go to trial by late winter or early spring. At this point, they are still awaiting a ruling on the motion to dismiss.
“Once we win the case, one can imagine Monsanto will want to appeal,” he said, predicting a process that could take three to five years and end up in the Supreme Court, where they might face another challenge: Justice Clarence Thomas served as an attorney for Monsanto from 1976-1979 and has failed to recuse himself from other cases involving the corporation.
Meanwhile, Gerritsen is encouraged by the effectiveness of the Occupy Wall Street movement in putting a spotlight on inequity. “It is the new conscience of America,” he said. That’s why he made his first trip to New York City to let the Occupy protesters know that farmers are behind them.
“I have not spoken to one farmer who doesn’t understand the message of Occupy Wall Street,” he told New York Times reporter Julia Moskin. “We have fifth- and sixth-generation farmers up where I live being pushed out of business, when all they want to do is grow good food. And if it goes on like this, all we’re going to have to eat in this country is unregulated, imported, genetically modified produce. That’s not a healthy food system.”
For more information, visit fooddemocracynow.org, pubpat.org, osgata.org, foodintegritynow.org, woodprairiefarm.com and www.i-sis.org.uk/MonsantovsFarmers.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.