Monsanto is a giant company selling chemicals. It also sells seeds. Some of those seeds are for crops genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered) to be grown with Monsanto’s agrochemicals. Monsanto is used to winning legal battles but now a case might not go the giant’s way.
Many people have strong opinions in favour of GMOs (GM organisms) or against them. I say, keep an open mind. Consider each GMO on its merits, its costs, its risks. The legal and political issues around it. What it could mean for food sovereignty and food security.
This huge company can seem unstoppable but is it really so? Another Motley Fool, Rich Duprey, says that Monsanto is facing a legal challenge that it might not win. The case is in court now.
Mr Duprey tells us, ‘[S]ince 1997 [Monsanto] has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers who’ve improperly reused its patented seeds, or on average about one lawsuit every three weeks for 16 straight years.’ Yes really. One every three weeks for 16 years. So if you’re a farmer, you might not want to mess with Monsanto. Nor with the other biotech giants BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta.
But an Australian farmer called Steve Marsh is taking that risk. He’s not suing a biotech giant as such. Instead he’s suing his neighbour, Michael Baxter, who grows a Monsanto crop.
Mr Marsh’s farm was organic until some of Mr Baxter’s GM seeds crossed the fence. He lost organic status from 70% of his land. Here’s a film in which Mr Marsh tells us what happened.
On the next farm, Mr Baxter grows oilseed rape (rapeseed, canola, Brassica napus) from Monsanto seeds. It’s a Roundup Ready crop, meaning that Mr Baxter can spray his fields with the popular Monsanto weedkiller called Roundup (that’s glyphosate) without damaging his oilseed rape.
Here’s a newspaper article about Mr Marsh calling Mr Baxter ‘reckless’ when harvesting his Roundup Ready crop. ‘Marsh is seeking compensation, but more importantly for farmers across Australia and beyond, is asking [Western Australia]’s supreme court to issue a permanent injunction on Baxter to prevent him planting more GM crops.’
Perhaps these neighbours won’t share a quiet beer for a while now, eh? Mr Duprey at The Motley Fool explains why we should care about this dispute. A victory for Mr Marsh would warn farmers that if they plant GM seeds, ‘they will be held liable for the equivalent of “polluting” a neighbor’s property. Just as a company can be held liable for toxic runoff that contaminates an adjacent piece of land, this lawsuit seeks to hold GM farmers liable for their “runoff” that ruins a neighbor’s livelihood…
‘[T]he lawsuit… may cause Australia to relax its otherwise-strict zero-tolerance policy toward GM produce… [In Australia, organic] means 100% organic with no trace GMOs permitted, and that might change in a bid to allow peaceful coexistence. But if Marsh loses the case, then GM farmers and Monsanto can rest easy knowing they’ll be able to plant their lab-altered seed without consequence.’
As it happened, ‘Marsh regained his organic certification last November following his neighbor agreeing to modify his harvesting methods to minimize the opportunity for his GM seeds to cross contaminate adjacent properties. Unfortunately for organic farmers not located in Australia, the tolerance for GMO traces in organic produce means they would have a steeper hill to climb, though perhaps on the basis of a property rights protection issue, it could be a wedge to sever the unrestrained proliferation of genetically modified seed.
‘Because Monsanto requires farmers to sign non-liability clauses when they purchase seeds from the biotech, it’s insulated from being a party to the lawsuit directly, though it demurred when specifically asked whether it was providing financial assistance to the defense. But a win by Marsh could show there is indeed a chink in Monsanto’s armor of invincibility.’
I don’t know whether Mr Marsh expected to become famous for taking Mr Baxter to court. It sounds as though the two of them might be sharing quiet beers again by now. Or maybe not. I’ve not heard of Mr Marsh getting his organic status back, with all that means for his profits.