New York State legislators pass bill to protect farmers from biotech industry lawsuits
- By David Gutierrez - March 14, 2015
On February 11, the New York State Assembly passed a bill that would protect farmers from being sued by biotechnology companies in the case of genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMO) crops accidentally growing in their fields.
In contrast with conventionally bred crops, GE crops are typically held under a patent which prohibits anyone from planting them without the express permission of the patent-holding company. They are also usually sold with a license that prohibits saving seeds for re-planting. Instead, the seeds must be re-purchased each year.
On many occasions, biotech companies have sued farmers for planting GE crops without the appropriate license. Yet, in many such cases, the farmers claimed that their fields were naturally colonized by the GE crops via normal seed dispersal mechanisms. Farmers have also expressed concern that they could be sued in the event of natural cross-pollination between their fields and those of GE crops.
"If passed by the state Senate, the law would protect such farmers against frivolous lawsuits", New York Assemblyman Tom Abinati said. He especially noted the importance of protecting organic farmers, who might lose their certification if their fields are contaminated with GE, or genetically modified organisms (GMO) strains.
Supreme Court rules for biotech giants
The New York Assembly's action comes in light of a January 2014 Supreme Court ruling upholding the rights of biotech companies to pursue such lawsuits. Originally, more than 80 plaintiffs, including the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), had sought to stop biotech giant Monsanto from suing anyone whose field is unintentionally contaminated by the company's GE seeds.
In June 2013, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, DC, dismissed the lawsuit. Although the court agreed that it was inevitable that some fields would be unintentionally contaminated by Monsanto's products, it trusted the company's promise not to sue in such cases.
They came to this conclusion, "because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not 'take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes (because, for example, some transgenic seed or pollen blew onto the grower's land),'" the 2013 decision read. The 2014 Supreme Court decision upheld this ruling.
Monsanto has already filed more than 140 lawsuits alleging planting of its patented seeds without permission and settled another 700 cases. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were concerned that Monsanto's promise not to sue over "inadvertent" contamination was not strong enough.
"The Supreme Court failed to grasp the extreme predicament family farmers find themselves in," said Jim Gerritsen, an organic seed farmer and president of OSGATA. "The Court of Appeals agreed our case had merit. However... safeguards they ordered are insufficient to protect our farms and our families."
"Monsanto has effectively gotten away with stealing the world's seed heritage and abusing farmers for the flawed nature of their patented seed technology," said Dave Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now! "This is an outrage of historic proportions and will not stand."
Farmers left without protection
Because of the Supreme Court decision, farmers remain concerned that, at any time, Monsanto -- or another biotech company that has not made any promises -- could change course and begin suing farmers
In such a case, farmers would have no legal protection. The New York bill is designed to prevent such scenarios.
"If Monsanto can patent seeds for financial gain, they should be forced to pay for contaminating a farmer's field, not be allowed to sue them," Murphy said in response to the Supreme Court decision. "Once again, America's farmers have been denied justice, while Monsanto's reign of intimidation is allowed to continue in rural America."
A bill requiring the labeling of GE foods is also pending in the legislature.
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