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Taking On Big Ag—Is Monsanto Useful?

| September 1, 2011

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Ira Wallace; photo: Trav Williams, Stewards Project

Ira Wallace and other small organic farmers have banded together to challenge an mighty agricultural giant, arguing that Monsanto's patented transgenic seeds do not benefit society. 

My uncle Gordon’s partner Ira Wallace has been part of our family for more than 15 years. At holidays, my mother eagerly awaits Ira’s arrival for help with sprawling meals—Ira can cook anything, probably because she can grow anything.

“I grew up with my grandmother who gardened. We had ducks and guineas and, since this was in Florida, mangoes and avocado trees and pecan trees," Ira said, laughing. "It was one of those big, old yards at the edge of town.” When she went off to college she hoped she would never have to weed again. But when her grandmother died the same year, Ira began feeling the absence of the family garden and started learning about seed saving, the process of using seeds from one harvested plant to grow the next year’s crop. Later, she helped start two communal farming communities in Virginia. "I'm not exactly the most organized teacher," she said, "so it’s great living with people because some of the things that I value younger people can learn.”

In March, Ira learned that a tumor had grown near her brain, which her doctors expected to be benign. But when it was removed in early April, a biopsy revealed the tumor was a relatively rare, aggressive and malignant type, called Rhabdoid meningioma. The prognosis for survival with a good quality of life was between two and five years. Ira's response was to throw her efforts primarily into one project, which encompassed the work she’d done with seeds and organic gardening throughout her life: a lawsuit against the multinational agricultural giant Monsanto.

One of the largest seed and herbicide companies in the world, Monsanto has a long history of prosecuting farmers on whose land Monsanto’s patented transgenic seeds have been found. It is widely documented that seeds may arrive on farmland by a number of routes beyond deliberate planting—including wind, birds, and spillover from passing trucks—but Monsanto has repeatedly sued farmers for patent infringement even if the farmers never intended to plant or harvest transgenic crops, and have a history of using only conventional or organic seeds. The plaintiffs, including the organization that Ira co-owns, called Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), are preemptively suing Monsanto in a case that, if won, would protect them from such lawsuits in the future.

Although she finds continual satisfaction working in gardens and with SESE, for Ira the lawsuit represents a project with wider impact.  “You want to think globally and act locally,” Ira told me in June, “and this is a way to direct my local work and link it with something that might have a larger impact. It seems more urgent to put support behind it now.”

SESE is one of 95 plaintiffs in the case, all of whom are represented by a unique legal organization, the Public Patent Foundation, more commonly known as PubPat, which works primarily on suits involving patents.

According to PubPat’s official complaint, Monsanto filed at least 144 lawsuits against farmers in at least 27 different states between 1997 and April 2010. In a post on their website responding to the suit, Monsanto stated: “It has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seed or traits are present in farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.”

Dan Ravicher, PubPat’s executive director, takes issue with the statement’s ambiguity. “That sounds like a bunch of lawyerly guff,” he told me. “And what happens if you’re polluted beyond ‘trace amounts’? It’s unreliable, ambiguous nonsense that cannot be relied upon by anyone to provide any comfort that they’re not at risk for being sued for patent infringement.”

THE UBIQUITY OF MONSANTO is difficult to overstate. According to an NPR story that aired in January, more than 9 out of 10 soybean seeds carry Monsantos Roundup Ready genetic trait. It's about the same for cotton and just a little lower for corn. "Farmers will not buy soybeans without Roundup Ready in it. So, that gives Monsanto an amazing amount of leverage," said Jim Denvir, a lawyer working for DuPont, which owns the competing seed company Pioneer. The seeds’ popularity can be largely attributed to the ease with which farmers say they can grow crops. “There's nothing like Roundup. A monkey could farm with it," said Luke Ulrich, a Kansas corn and soybean farmer. A significant part of this ease comes from the seed’s unique design to resist Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup, so farmers can spray the herbicide without risk of harming crops.

But despite Monsanto’s popularity, PubPat’s case is built on the allegation that Monsanto’s patents are not in the public interest. “There’s case law going back hundreds of years that says if something’s not good for society, if it’s not useful, if it doesn’t provide any benefits, it’s not patentable,” said Ravicher. To win the case, PubPat needs to prove that Monsanto’s patents are not aiding greater society, an allegation that Ravicher and his team hope to prove from a number of angles.

One frequent claim in Monsanto’s publicity campaigns is that transgenic seeds increase yield—the number of surviving plants annually eligible for harvest. But studies have shown that there is actually no meaningful improvement in yield from using transgenic seed. A 2009 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization in the United States... we conclude that [genetic engineering] has done little to increase overall crop yields.” The following year, the attorney general of West Virginia filed suit against Monsanto after his office determined that several published tests contradicted the yield results claimed by Monsanto in its advertising.

Risk to human and animal health is also under question. Monsanto’s transgenic seed is designed to specifically resist one particular herbicide, called glyphosate. As Monsanto’s seeds become more widely used, so too will glyphosate. One study published in Occupational Environmental Medicine and another in Leukemia and Lymphoma suggested an association between glyphosate use and the risk of nonHodgkin lymphoma. Another study in Occupational Environmental Medicine suggested a link between glyphosate use and multiple myoeloma, which has been associated with agents that cause either DNA damage or immune suppression. Others have suggested an association between Monsanto's transgenic seed, its inherent increase in glyphosate use and animal miscarriages.

But the full impact of Monsanto’s transgenic seeds on the environment is necessarily unknown; the terms of Monsanto’s patents allow the company to prevent any third party from performing independent research on its transgenic seed without Monsanto's permission. “These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry,” a group of leading scientists wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a letter to an official at the EPA, entomologist Elson J. Shields wrote that the issue goes beyond a blanket denial of all research requests, to “selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”

Of the many lawsuits Monsanto has filed against farmers, a few have stood out and gained media attention. In 2008, CBS Evening News aired a segment describing threats Monsanto made against David and Dawn Runyon, farmers who say they never intended to use transgenic seed, but were nonetheless threatened with a lawsuit for patent infringement. The corporation had sent them a letter claiming that a state agency had given it the right to come on the Runyon's land—but the named agency did not exist until two months after the letter was sent. CBS interviewed a Monsanto spokeswoman who said she wasn't aware of the specific case but denied that Monsanto would lie, deceive, intimidate, or harass American farmers to protect its patents.

FOLLOWING HER SURGERY, Ira underwent a follow-up MRI in June that came back clean, with no sign of a tumor or unusual growths. She’ll have to return for further MRIs every few months, but as she wrote in her celebratory e-mail to family and friends, “So far, so good.”

As she continues her work with the lawsuit against Monsanto, Ira said that she sees a similarity between environmental work and feminism. “You have small farmers against these huge, monolithic, well-funded entities...who don’t exactly have an interest in the playing field being leveled,” she said. “Farmers are trying to bring to the public awareness of the injustice in a system that operates for the interest of those who have money and power.”

If PubPat wins the lawsuit, the larger impact of the case will depend on the terms of the judge’s decision. The ruling may be limited to protect the plaintiffs in the case, but if Monsanto’s patents are nullified, they will no longer be legitimate against anyone.

“The lawsuit is really about changing the ground rules,” Ira said. “We don’t know if we’ll be successful, but we know if we don’t try that we don’t have a chance.”

In a related action challenging "Big Ag," environmental groups have organized a march from New York to Washington, D.C., between October 1 and October 16 to demand that all food containing genetically modified organisms be so labeled. For more information, click on A Mobilization for GMO Labeling.

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