Goliath and David: Monsanto's Legal battles against farmers

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Monsanto has sued many a farmer when their GM crops have turned up on the farmer's fields even though the farmers say they never planted them (examples)[1] [2] [3]. For an alarming expose of Monsanto's legal battles with American farmers see this report Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers.

Farmers who get into the RR system lose their independence, and are obliged to sign a lengthy and restrictive agreement (which many have come to see as the selling of their souls) [4]. What's more Monsanto contracts out to private investigation firms like Pinkerton, to regularly check up on their farmers, taking samples unannounced from their fields to make sure they are not in violation [5] [6]. It also maintains a hotline so farmers can turn in their neighbors for suspected violations. The June 1, 2004 issue of Playboy tells how one longtime Indiana farmer, Troy Roush, once big on biotech was wrongly accused of saving seed. The legal fight cost him $390,000 in lawyers' fees. Since then he has begun to see the way the system is devastating traditional farming. "Genetically modified crops are destroying the social fabric of our rural communities" he says, "Roush probably couldn't go back to conventional crops even if he could find good conventional seed; once Monsanto's DNA is in your field it's almost impossible to get it out. And with the corporate DNA police abroad in the land, farmers can't afford to take a chance. So it looks as though there's no turning back from a future in which Monsanto and a handful of other companies own the genetic building blocks of the world's food supply. 'I'd put the genie back in the bottle in a heartbeat,' says Roush" [7].

In the well known Percy Schmeiser case the Canadian Supreme Court in Monsanto v Schmeiser rejected Schmeiser's claim that the presence of RR crops had happened accidentally, however Schmeiser says that since he never used Roundup in his fields there would have been no reason for him to have RR crops. Schmeiser was not required to pay Monsanto any damages due to the fact that he had not profited from the "infringement".

Nevertheless what is disturbing to many is the fact that, though technically the court attempted to limit Monsanto's patent protection to its engineered gene, in effect the court allowed Monsanto to claim patent ownership of a plant, a form of life [8], and that is because the engineered gene cannot be separated from the plant - except in a lab. "Mr. Schmeiser saved the seed and reused it 'for production and advantage,' the majority noted. 'Whether or not patent protection for the gene and the cell extends to activities involving the plant is not relevant to the patent's validity'" "The team of dissenting judges in the latest decision, led by Justice Louise Arbour, said the ruling contradicts the Harvard mouse judgment. The majority is effectively allowing Monsanto 'to do indirectly what Canadian patent law has not allowed them to do directly: namely, to acquire patent protection over whole plants,' wrote Arbour" [9] #108 [10].

The judgment along with previous ones upon which it was built has been interpreted by many to mean that if any RR crop is found on agricultural land wherein it was not specifically purchased even if it found its way there through entirely natural means such as wind or insect pollination, the farmer is liable to Monsanto for "theft" of its property. That at least seems to be the goal of Monsanto. Says this 2000 ENS article regarding the Canadian federal court judgment, "Monsanto did not directly try to explain how the Roundup Ready seed got there. 'Whether Mr. Schmeiser knew of the matter or not matters not at all,' said Roger Hughes, a Monsanto attorney quoted by the Western Producer, a Canadian agriculture magazine.... 'It was a very frightening thing, because they said it doesn't matter how it gets into a farmer's field; it's their property," Schmeiser said, in an interview with Agweek. "If it gets in by wind or cross-pollination, that doesn't matter'" [11] See also [12].

"Monsanto's Jordan said the company isn't concerned that Schmeiser won't have to pay. "The important aspect of this particular case was intellectual property, not any sort of monetary gain," she said. "The ruling affirms the way that we do business" [13]. For a different assessment of the decision see here.