November 9, 2011

Maine farmer heads group
challenging genetics giant

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

A fight to maintain consumer choice and farm independence has landed Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen on Utne Reader's list of "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World," published in the November/December edition of the magazine on newsstands now.

click image to enlarge

Organic seed potato farmer Jim Gerritsen heads a trade association that is suing chemical giant Monsanto.

Photo by Charlotte Hedley


MONSANTO HAS BEEN raising the ire of concerned citizens since the days of its involvement in nuclear weapons development and its manufacture of the pesticide DDT and the dioxin-laced defoliant Agent Orange. DDT has since been banned in the U.S. Meanwhile, the legacy of Agent Orange sprayed on the people of Vietnam during the Vietnam War lingers on in higher rates of genetic diseases and shockingly deformed stillborn babies.

AMERICAN SOLDIERS serving in the Vietnam War also suffer from health problems linked to their exposure to Agent Orange and other warfare chemicals. Both Vietnamese victims and U.S. soldiers have filed class-action lawsuits against the companies that manufactured Agent Orange, including Monsanto.

MAINERS WILL REMEMBER the lawsuit Monsanto filed against Oakhurst Dairy when the milk processor began labeling its products as free from the corporation's synthetic bovine growth hormone. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with Oakhurst agreeing to add a statement saying the Food & Drug Administration finds no difference in milk from cows treated with the artificial hormones.

THESE DAYS, Monsanto is known for its genetically modified seeds, some of which create plants that can withstand heavy applications of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. While purchasing Roundup requires no special license or training, independent scientists are discovering adverse health and environmental effects that appear to be linked to this chemical. Recent studies have suggested a link between Roundup and soil degradation, human cell death, infertility and a new AIDS-like disease in genetically-modified plants.

MONSANTO IS CURRENTLY under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission over alleged financial kickbacks offered to pesticide dealers to encourage them to sell more Roundup.

Gerritsen, wife Megan, and their four children run the Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, which produces and sells organic seed potatoes to kitchen gardeners and market farmers in all 50 states. Gerritsen is also president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, and it was that role that led to the Utne recognition.

The nonprofit organization created a stir in food and farming communities when, with legal backing from the Public Patent Foundation, it filed a lawsuit in March against the chemical and biotechnology giant Monsanto. OSGATA has since been joined in the lawsuit by 82 other seed businesses, trade organizations and family farmers, which together represent more than 270,000 people.

The lawsuit questions the validity of Monsanto's patents on genetically modified seeds, and seeks protection from patent-infringement lawsuits for the plaintiffs should their crops become contaminated with Monsanto's transgenic crops.

"The viewpoint of Monsanto is that (in such a situation) we have their technology, even though we don't want it and it has zero value in the organic market," Gerritsen said. "We think they should keep their pollution on their side of the fence."

Laws prohibit certified organic crops from containing genetically modified ingredients, and Monsanto's patents prohibit farmers from growing its seeds unless purchased from the company. Yet pollen doesn't heed certification or patent laws, and regularly drifts from transgenic crops to contaminate nearby non-genetically altered ones.

To add insult to injury, Monsanto has a reputation for suing or threatening to sue farmers for patent infringement in cases involving its genetically altered seeds, action reported in numerous media outlets as wide ranging as the Columbia Daily Tribune, CBS News and the New York Times.

Despite this well documented legal tactic, Monsanto spokesperson Thomas Helscher stated in an email: "Monsanto has never sued and has publicly committed to not sue farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields. The company does not and will not pursue legal action against a farmer where patented seed or traits are found in that farmer's field as a result of unintentional means."

"Inadvertent" and "unintentional" are the key words here, but for farmers to prove that Monsanto's transgenic seeds are unwanted invaders in a court of law is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. A 2005 report from the Center for Food Safety, an organic-food and sustainable agriculture advocacy group, contends that Monsanto had at that time filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers. The report also contends that the corporation employed 75 people armed with a budget of $10 million devoted "solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers."

Pre-trial motions are still being filed in the lawsuit brought by OSGATA, with the most recent from Monsanto asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Helscher said the motion to dismiss results from the corporation's pledge to not sue farmers "where patented seed or traits are found in that farmer's field as a result of inadvertent means. Accordingly, there is no real controversy between parties and the OSGATA case should be dismissed."

Gerritsen views Monsanto's statements as part of a disinformation campaign designed to prolong the lawsuit.

"What they typically try to do is drag out lawsuits as long as they can, hoping the plaintiffs will run out of funding," Gerritsen said. He is confident OSGATA has the resources necessary to pursue this lawsuit for years, if necessary.

Unlike open pollinated crops such as corn and canola, which have suffered from widespread contamination by genetically modified seeds, potatoes remain relatively safe, Gerritsen said.

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