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Local organic farm joins others in lawsuit

Organic farmers Dewane and Anne Morgan have joined a nationwide lawsuit seeking protection from patent infringement lawsuits threatened by international seed giant Monsanto Company. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A tiny Hubbard County organic farm has joined a group of 60 family farmers and small seed producers in filing a lawsuit for protection against patent infringement, naming biotech behemoth Monsanto Company.

Dewane and Anne Morgan, who operate Lakes and Valley CSA south of Park Rapids, filed the preemptive strike in U.S. District Court in Manhatten Monday to prevent being sued for saving organic alfalfa seed for re-use. They say it's a precaution against using seed contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified alfalfa, due for release this spring.

Monsanto claims that's precisely why the Morgans could be liable for royalties, for planting seed with patented characteristics caused by drift.

The Public Patent Foundation filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs and is representing them at no cost.

The suit isn't about money, the Morgans insist. But it could have global implications about the worldwide distribution of seeds and ultimately, foods.

Pollination and drift

Morgans and other plaintiffs worry that Monsanto's new Roundup Ready alfalfa seed will find its way into their organic field, inadvertently contaminating their alfalfa. Transgenic seed has the potential to destroy organic seed, the plaintiffs maintain, and organic farms may not use genetically modified seed to be federally certified.

But the rub is if a farmer's crop gets contaminated and displays some of the patented traits such as resistance to Roundup, that farmer can be sued for evading royalty payments to Monsanto.

"See the real problem with alfalfa is the pollen is spread by insects and so you can't really, other than killing all the insects, you can't really stop the spread of the pollination," Dewane Morgan said. "So they're slowly going to move the pollen from one plant to another. That's a natural process to do that."

The farm takes precautions against cross-pollination but it's unrealistic to think a buffer zone or even a wall can contain what has been happening in nature for centuries, the couple says. And they don't want to be sued for planting seed that may have inadvertently picked up some patented characteristics.

The suit claims Monsanto has sued farmers for saving organic seed to avoid the cross-contamination with the seed giant's products. Farmers who have used the patented seed, even inadvertently, have been sued for evading royalties.

Monsanto, in a statement on its website, dismissed the suit as a "publicity stunt."

The company denies filing suits against farmers for the inadvertent cross-pollination of its patented seeds that are insect-resistant, high-yield and herbicide compatible.

"These efforts seek to reduce private and public investment in the development of new higher-yielding seed technologies," the company said in a statement.

"While we respect the views of organic farmers as it relates to the products they choose to grow, we don't believe that American agriculture faces an all-or-nothing approach."

Dewane Morgan concedes "some of them may be rightly so," if farmers try to use the patented seed without reimbursement.

Monsanto maintains it has a significant investment in patenting its products and use of those products without payment is just like enforcing any other laws. Its representatives did not respond to a call for further comments on the lawsuit.

Seed sovereignty

Aside from the patent issues, the Morgans have concerns about the direction the seed development industry is heading internationally.

The genetically modified seed crowds out organic seed to the point of extinction. For the past 15 years seed companies have bred seed to produce a limited-season plant that has sterile seeds and a one-time flowering potential, the suit claims.

"They started with the big crops, corn, beans and rice to where the rice seed won't grow if you save the seed and replant it," Anne Morgan said of the multinational seed companies. "It's bred to not regrow. But now they're going down to vegetables.

"Farmers have to buy seed every year or run the risk of being sued to the point where they have literally lost their farms trying to defend themselves against what this lawsuit identifies as an injustice," she said."

"Coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed," the lawsuit claims. "History has already shown this, as soon after transgenic seed for canola was introduced, organic canola became virtually extinct... Organic corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet and alfalfa now face the same fate, as transgenic seed has been released for each of those crops, too," the complaint states.

"And transgenic seed is being developed for many other crops, thus putting the future of all food, and indeed all agriculture, at stake."

"There's always genetic modification taking place just naturally in nature, selective breeding, OK?," worries Dewane Morgan.

"But with the transgenetic engineering, human interaction is putting genes together that would never come together naturally in nature. There's no way it would ever happen. It's human-induced.'

It is a complaint increasingly being voiced by environmentalists, likened to nuclear poisoning.

Controlling the world

Is it a monopolistic form of international agriculture? Farmers must buy seed every season from a dwindling number of producers if they're to be sued for storing it. That is particularly affecting impoverished farmers in Third World countries, the couple maintains.

But Monsanto maintains its significant investments in genetically engineering crops has paid off in vastly increased yields and crops that are disease-resistant.

"Whichever company owns the seeds of the world, our food supply, controls the world," Dewane Morgan suggests.

"And controls the price of food and the availability of food so food becomes a weapon in a doomsday kind of situation," his wife adds.

"It's a way of controlling society," Dewane Morgan said. "We lose our freedom of choice."

Countries such as India are becoming embroiled in the production and control of genetically modified crops that were traditionally grown for centuries naturally, Anne Morgan maintains.

Developing the Roundup Ready crops also runs counter to farming practices that, for years, have employed widespread application of Roundup to kill off an old crop to make way for a different one in the rotation, Dewane Morgan said.

"This lawsuit doesn't just affect organic growers," Dewane Morgan maintains. "It affects conventional farmers that are still using chemical fertilizer that don't want to use Roundup Ready (crops)."

(Farmers don't want to) "be locked into that closed system of using only this herbicide," Anne Morgan adds. "Farmers tend to be independent lots."

Monsanto, under court rules, will file a reply. The judge will then issue a scheduling order that will control the pace of the case through the court system.

Two small North Dakota companies have joined the plaintiffs. The Morgans are the only plaintiffs from Minnesota.

The plaintiffs also have an economic argument. If organic farmers lose their certification through cross-pollination, their markets for produce dry up, they say.

Customers at farmers markets increasingly expect farm products to be chemical-free and grown as holistically as possible without interference from other crops, the lawsuit contends.

"We are aware that we will pay to use licensed seed by Monsanto, we must pay the fees," Dewane Morgan said. "What we're objecting to is being charged with patent infringement for something that we weren't trying to grow and the cross-pollination came from surrounding areas off the farm and blew onto the farm or came from insects. We shouldn't be liable for that."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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