WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three federal appeals judges on Thursday morning heard oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by a Maine-based farmers association against Monsanto, the agriculture and biotech giant.
It’s too early to predict the case’s outcome, but Jim Gerritsen, owner of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater and president of the Washington, Maine-based Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, the lead plaintiff in the case, said he was encouraged by the morning’s activities.
“I think it went very well. It was a very robust session,” Gerritsen told the Bangor Daily News. “The three judges were very engaged. They had done their homework.”
The oral arguments were an opportunity for three judges with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington to ask questions of both parties’ lawyers: Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation is representing the farmers, while Seth Waxman represents Monsanto.
In March 2011, the organic seed growers association, along with 82 plaintiffs, sued Monsanto in federal district court in New York. The lawsuit challenges the validity of several patents the company holds for genetically modified crops, and seeks protection for the farmers from patent infringement lawsuits Monsanto could file if its genetically modified seed inadvertently contaminated their crops through natural causes such as seed drift and cross pollination.
Monsanto has maintained that traditional or organic farmers found with trace amounts of its patented seed products have nothing to fear from lawsuit.
“Farmers who have no interest in using Monsanto’s patented seed products have no rational basis to fear a lawsuit from Monsanto,” Tom Helscher, Monsanto’s director of corporate affairs, said in a statement provided to the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “As was stated in the court, it has been, and remains, Monsanto’s policy not to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patents are present in a farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.”
Gerritsen said the judges grilled Waxman, Monsanto’s lawyer, about those claims.
“We were encouraged by the questioning,” Gerritsen said. “Monsanto continued to present their position that it wouldn’t go after these farmers, and they were presented with questions by judges who, one would assume, weren’t accepting the non-answers they were being given.”
He elaborated on his interpretation of the judges’ questioning: “If I ask a question, I expect to get an answer,” he said. “If I am forced to ask the same question over and over and over, it’s because I’m not happy with the answer I’m getting.”
Gerritsen was one of 32 farmers who attended the oral arguments. There were three others from Maine: Holli Cederholm, general manager of the organic seed growers association and owner of Proud Peasant Farm in Washington, Maine; Aimee Good from Good Dirt Farm in Monticello; and Meg Liebman from South Paw Farm in Unity.
“The courtroom was quite full,” Gerritsen said. “Farmers from all over North America were in the courtroom as witness to all this.”
Gerritsen was on his way late Thursday afternoon to meet with members of the National Organic Coalition who wanted an update on the case, which has received worldwide attention. Gerritsen has done interviews with media outlets in Australia and the English-language Al Jazeera network.
“It’s a landmark legal action, an effort to protect [the] organic community from the inevitable contamination risk from the biotech industry that seems to be unconcerned about restricting their pollution and contamination of those farmers’ crops who want nothing to do with their technology,” Gerritsen said.