Oregon’s organic farmers wage battle against Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.
BY LEE VAN DER VOO
These heirloom tomatoes are grafted onto a disease-resistant root to improve productivity in the greenhouse at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath. The farm is home to Wild Garden Seed.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
The New York courtroom was standing room only. On Jan. 31, outside in Foley Square in Manhattan, people were waving burlap sacks, bearing slogans like: “Seeds are a Human Right.” Inside, 55 organic farmers from 22 states, including Oregon, stood shoulder-to-shoulder asking for a day in court. A federal judge later refused to hear their case, which sought to revoke patents for genetically modified seeds from Monsanto. But back in the Willamette Valley, much is still on the line.
This is the latest in litigation, now headed to the Court of Appeals, to pit organic seed growers against purveyors of genetically modified Roundup Ready sugarbeet seeds, patented by Monsanto and bred to stand up to the potent herbicide while weeds succumb. They are the backbone of a lucrative business in the Willamette Valley.
The 83 plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim Monsanto’s patents on such products are a bully stick; wielded in lawsuits against organic farmers who say their land is contaminated by pollen drift from conventional farms. They claim crops are rendered worthless in a market with zero tolerance for GMO traits, and that farmers are abandoning some crops and purity testing others as GMO counterparts arrive, losing income. Brought by the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGATA), farms and other groups, the suit represents about 300,000 organic farmers, including Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Siskiyou Seeds in Williams and Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home.
“There are two ways that the organic growers can be protected from lawsuits,” says Sabrina Hassan, senior counsel at the Public Patent Foundation. “If the patents are invalidated, then Monsanto couldn’t sue anybody … The other thing is the judge can issue a declaration saying these clients can’t infringe” because organic growers don’t want GMO products.
Frank Morton, who coordinates seed production at Wild Garden Seed and is a past president of OSGATA, says the lawsuit also has the potential to end hefty investments in GMO crops.
“I think one reason [genetically engineered] crops convey such power to the patent holders is because of the power of the patents to convince investors that this company has a good investment. Companies with a nice portfolio of GE patents impress investors on Wall Street. I think if those patents go away, that might change,” he says.
The litigation is significant for another reason. It’s led by Dan Ravicher, dubbed a modern “Robin Hood” by Science Magazine for fighting patents that fall outside the “public good,” magic words that squash patents under federal law. Ravicher is known for founding the New York-based Public Patent Foundation, which, with the ACLU, sued Myriad Genetics in 2009 for patenting genes for breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad won the case on appeal, which may now head to the Supreme Court.
Italian peppers are sown for seed and sold by Wild Garden Seed. Peppers produced by the plants are also sold at Gathering Together Farm, at farmers’ markets and to restaurants.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Whatever the outcome of the Monsanto litigation — no doubt years ahead — it has influence in the Willamette Valley, where the organic seed industry does a $35 million annual business in worldwide exports. Similarly, the area’s sugarbeet seed producers, primarily West Coast Beet Seed and Betaseed, supply half the sugar farms in North America, a business valued in excess of $100 million a year.
Morton says winning the lawsuit won’t help him soon. Since Roundup Ready sugarbeets were planted in the Willamette Valley, Morton says he has lost tens of thousands as buyers headed elsewhere amid rumblings that his land has been contaminated.
“I grow table beets and I grow Swiss chard. Both of these are the same species of the sugarbeet, there’s no difference. These plants can freely cross pollinate,” says Morton. He now spends $300 to $900 a crop verifying the organic content of his seeds and has abandoned some breeding projects.
Farmers around the nation echoed those issues in the OSGATA litigation. And bigger than the threat of new costs and cross pollinaton is a fear of lawsuits, one they say is increasingly suffocating amid heightened risks and small margins.
OSGATA purports Monsanto has filed 144 lawsuits nationally against farmers in two years, while settling another 700. Monsanto disputes that it has ever sued farmers over chance outcrossing, only license violations — either use of patented seeds without permission or seed saving, which the company prohibits, a claim that New York federal Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald found to be true.
“Monsanto never has — and has committed it never will — sue a farmer if our patented seed or traits are found in his field as a result of inadvertent means,” says Tom Helscher, director of corporate affairs at Monsanto, who responded via email.
Jim Gerritsen, a Maine farmer who is president of OSGATA, says Monsanto’s unwillingness to sign a deal protecting organic farmers has a chilling effect. “Even if we believed them, what would prevent them from waking up tomorrow and changing their minds?” he says, adding organic farmers need clear information about business risks.
Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed, along with 82 other farmers and groups, is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Monsanto and its genetically modified seeds.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Seed growers on both sides of the aisle agree that purity drives their markets. And in the Willamette Valley, farmers have long purified crops through a pinning system overseen by the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association. Through it, farmers map where crops will be planted, and work to create space between them to keep them from outcrossing.
“It’s like chess, but backwards, because you keep adding pieces to the board,” says Dan Hillburn, plant division administrator at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Today, every type of brassica (a genus of plants in the mustard family) is grown for organic seed in the valley, along with spinaches, radishes, chard and beets. Squash, pumpkins and cucumbers are also grown. So are flowers, onions and cool-season vegetables, to name a sampling.
“The seed industry in this valley is a very important place in the world. There are not that many places left that are this big where seeds grow well, so this is sort of like the last best place to grow seeds,” said Hillburn.
As GMO varieties are introduced, there is less space for organic and more risk. Though sugarbeets were the first GMO crop to arrive, there is pressure to introduce canola, which crosses with brassicas. GMO wheat and brassicas also exist, and possible entry into the valley is a concern. Hillburn imagines such problems will grow for organic farmers as GMO crops are deregulated, sold on the open market, and planted outside the “pinning system” (pinned maps) as sugarbeets can be.
Though GMO corn, a common — and deregulated — crop, is not a problem yet, he said. “I think it is only a matter of time.”
Sarah Kleeger owns Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, which breeds vegetable and flower seeds for the Pacific Northwest. It illustrates how issues with GMO crops perpetuate. Her farm used to grow Roundup Ready sugarbeet seeds and is a mile downwind from another grower. The farm weeds aggressively to keep beet seed from harming business. But Kleeger says she isn’t sure how long they will persist in the ground and is concerned about evidence GMO traits may transfer in soil by virus.
“In an ideal world, we would be able to grow beta crops here, but we can’t,” she says. While the farm isn’t certified organic, and wouldn’t lose certification if contaminated, “Our customers are the ones that care, not the government,” Kleeger says.
Organic seed plants at Gathering Together Farm are increasingly threatened by potential out-crossing with genetically modified varieties, particularly beets grown nearby.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Supporters of GMO products like Steve Strauss, a professor in Oregon State University’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, say the organic marketplace simply needs to relax standards on purity.
“The contamination thing is really disingenuous at best,” says Strauss. “They have an economic grievance, but it’s really something they have imposed on themselves.”
Strauss says weeds, pesticide drift and out-crossing have always been facts of farming life. But because the organic community markets its lack of GMO traits, it’s tied to a zero-contamination standard, even while organic certification doesn’t require it. “All they need to do is say, hey, we need a reasonable threshold … and coexistence standards that agriculture has had for centuries.”
Strauss and others say the fuss about GMO meanwhile buries truths about its benefits to humans and the environment. The Roundup Ready trait, for example, greatly reduces the use of herbicide, cutting tractor time and reducing greenhouse gases. Because GMO crops are designed to increase crop yields, they also lower the price of food.
“Organic growers in the Willamette Valley may have some isolation problems. But they are going to be, in my opinion, outvoted by the fact that we want cheap food in this country,” says Gary Whiteaker of Madras, a retired consultant from global crop genetics broker Verdant Partners, based in Illinois. “GMO is a modern tool,” he says. “It’s no different than the tools in plant pathology and entomology that we’ve used for hundreds of years” to battle pests and disease, more critical as the world food supply shrinks.
Indeed, philanthropists have gotten behind the GMO cause to feed world hunger. GMO crops now include everything from drought-tolerant wheat and corn and bollworm resistant cotton to Roundup Ready soybeans, vitamin-enriched rice and pest-resistant potatoes and canola. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries had adopted such technologies as of February 2012.
But the patent litigation against Monsanto, and the push toward an organically pure Willamette Valley, are still of concern.
Kurt Wickstrom, president of Betaseed in Tangent, a seed production facility with 100 employees, says the Willamette Valley produces seed sown on 1.2 million acres in North America, tying the area directly to more than 50% of the domestic sugar supply for North America, which is 90% Roundup Ready. The remaining sugar supply comes from cane.
“Most of the sugar factories in North America are owned by sugarbeet farmers,” he said. And if Roundup Ready sugarbeet seeds become unavailable, risk to farming families who have invested in the industry is high. Wickstrom says Roundup Ready seeds are necessary to manage the crop efficiently and make sure the sugar supply is reliable.
Also at issue for Greg Loberg, manager of West Coast Beet Seed Company in Salem, a cooperative that produces sugarbeet seed, is that litigation distracts farmers from crop isolation techniques that could remedy problems.
“Litigation is not good for business,” Loberg says. “It’s expensive and it really hampers communication and education. It’s unfortunate, because this ongoing litigation has a tendency to make enemies, rather than encourage coexistence.”
While that atmosphere persists, it will be years before anyone knows the outcome of the OSGATA litigation. Judge Buchwald dismissed the case on Feb. 24, finding that mere potential for injury to organic farmers isn’t the same as actual injury, or even controversy, particularly when Monsanto hasn’t sued any of the plaintiffs and none have lost organic certification over trace contaminants. But despite the suit’s inability to move forward in that New York courtroom, the issue will continue. OSGATA’s Gerritsen says the organization plans to appeal to help organic farmers survive.
“The organic consumer equates freedom from GMO products with organic crops. This is our customer,” Gerritsen says. “Any business has to meet and exceed the requirements of their customer to stay in business.”