This past week a federal class-action law suit brought forth by a coalition of organic farmers against Monsanto was dismissed. The suit filed by the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGATA) made the argument that organic farmers need to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should their crops be contaminated with Monsanto’s genetically modified traits. The loss on behalf of the growers has stirred the public. Already there have been protests in D.C. and New York City, and an Occupy Monsanto movement looms on the horizon.
The judged reasoned that the farmers had no grounds to ask for such a ruling, as they had never been harmed by the company. You have to agree with the judge a bit; it’s kind of like asking for a restraining order because someone is looking at you funny. However, the fears of OSGATA are far from unfounded. Monsanto has a long history of filing lawsuits, for everything from farmers saving GM seeds to other companies using their patents. OSGATA does have reason to be afraid; it is legally the responsibility of an organic corn farmer to plant enough buffer to prevent drifting pollen from modified corn from becoming incorporated with their crop. It seems preposterous, but welcome to the world of intellectual property, and here is an agri-biotech giant who’s not afraid to sue.
The problem in talking about genetically modified crops is that there is little middle ground. To some, inserting new genes into crops are inherently wrong; what we put in our food chain is not something we should mess with. Unfortunately, for those people, GM crops have become a backbone of U.S. agriculture; it’s in the feed your animals eat, your fuel, and your food. There is good reason for it too. Biotech crops include genes that allow them to be everything from being insect resistant, to drought tolerant and more. They provide security to farmers against pests and are easy to implement. On top of that, there are no known negative health risks, though it’s worth noting that some of the best research on those health outcomes is done by the biotech companies themselves.
This is really the heart of the problem; we really don’t know what’s in store. For fifteen years, there really haven’t been major health or environmental repercussions. But how these genes will blow with the wind is uncertain. What organic crops could be implicated? Are we creating super bug-insects that will eventually become immune to these genes? None of this has happened yet and it may never.
While the debate rages on in the U.S., genetically modified crops may have the potential to provide food security to some of the world’s poorest nations. Big biotech seed companies like Syngenta are helping to create modified provitamin A rice, Golden Rice, which has the potential to deliver desperately needed nutrients through an established staple. Monsanto is also working on creating drought-tolerant lines of maize, royalty free, for smallholder farmers in Africa. Some will call this a “Trojan horse,” an entrance for biotech companies to prey on the world’s poorest, but tell that that to the farmer whose life depends on a good harvest.
At the end of the day, this is technology and it’s going to be used and developed, for better or worse. It may hit us hard in the face in ten years, or it may be the best thing we ever invented.
Photo Credit: MillionsAgainstMonsanto