WASHINGTON — Four Maine farmers are on their way to Washington, D.C., this week to take part in a lawsuit a Maine-based farmers association has brought against Monsanto, the giant agriculture and biotechnology firm.
On Thursday morning, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington will hear oral arguments in a case brought by the Washington, Maine-based Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association against St. Louis-based Monsanto. It represents a second chance to have their concerns heard after a federal judge initially rejected the case last February.
Jim Gerritsen, owner of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater and president of the organic seed growers association, was in Baltimore on Wednesday morning and said he would arrive in the nation’s capital later in the day.
Joining him will be Holli Cederholm, general manager of the organic seed growers association and owner of Proud Peasant Farm in Washington, Maine; Aimee Good from Good Dirt Farm in Monticello; and Meg Liebman from South Paw Farm in Unity.
In Washington, the four of them will join 28 other farmers from around the country who also are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Gerritsen said.
The organic seed growers association, along with 82 plaintiffs, in March 2011 sued Monsanto in federal district court in New York. The lawsuit challenges the validity of several patents the company holds for genetically modified crops, and seeks protection for the farmers from patent infringement lawsuits Monsanto could file if its genetically modified seed inadvertently contaminated their crops through natural causes such as seed drift and cross pollination.
“That’s why we’ve gone to court,” Gerritsen said on Wednesday morning. “It’s a basic question of property rights. We have the right to farm the way we want to farm, and Monsanto should respect our rights, and certainly not accuse us of patent infringement when we want nothing to do with them.”
A Monsanto spokesman on Wednesday denied Gerritsen’s claims that the company pursues patent infringement lawsuits against farmers who inadvertently are found to have Monsanto’s patented seed products.
“The district court ruling dismissing this case noted it was simply a transparent effort by plaintiffs to create a controversy where none exists,” Tom Helscher, Monsanto’s director of corporate affairs, said in a statement provided to the Bangor Daily News. “Farmers who have no interest in using Monsanto’s patented seed products have no rational basis to fear a lawsuit from Monsanto, and claims to the contrary, to quote from the district Court, are ‘groundless’ and ‘baseless.’ As was stated in the court, it has been, and remains, Monsanto’s policy not to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patents are present in a farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.”
Helscher said Monsanto respects farmers’ rights to farm in any way they choose, whether organic, conventional or with improved seeds developed using biotechnology.
“All three production systems co-exist and contribute to meeting the needs of consumers,” Helscher said. “Since the advent of biotech crops more than 15 years ago, both biotech and organic crop production have flourished. We have no reason to think that will not continue to be the case.”
The 83 plaintiffs in the case are made up of independent farms, seed companies and agricultural associations from throughout the country. Plaintiffs from Maine also include the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity and Fedco Seeds in Waterville. Gerritsen said the plaintiffs collectively represent approximately 300,000 people and probably 25 percent of all certified organic farms in the United States and Canada.
Gerritsen said he was anxious to get into the courtroom.
“When we filed the lawsuit two years ago, we understood this was a three- to five-year process. This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Gerritsen said Wednesday morning. “We’re anxious to get this case to court. Every day Monsanto stalls and prevents farmers from gaining access to the courts is another opportunity for farmers to be contaminated by Monsanto’s seeds, and another opportunity for farmers to be pursued for patent infringement.”
A ruling could be issued in a couple of days, but Gerritsen said it’s more likely to take one to two months.
The travel for the farmers was supported by the Farmer Travel Fund. Gerritsen said the fundraising was very successful, but declined to say how much money was raised.