OSGATA President Updates on Monsanto and Labeling
By Laura Mathews
“The farmers went to court two years ago for justice and we aren’t going home until we get justice. “ – Jim Gerritsen, President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
An individual farmer in Indiana lost his case against Monsanto this week, but optimism exists that a group of organic seed growers may yet get a solid second shot for justice and protection from the biotech behemoth.
May 13th, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Monsanto ending a suit filed by 75-year-old Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman. Bowman purchased seeds including Monsanto RoundUp ready soybean from a grain elevator. His case revolved around the argument that he purchased the seed from the grain elevator and that act itself was legal. A doctrine called patent exhaustion was used to support Bowman's position.
A separate case against Monsanto – one that we here at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds participate in – is still undecided and very different. We are plaintiffs in the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association suit against Monsanto. OSGATA lost the first round when the case was dismissed in the Federal District Court in New York City, but filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were presented in January.
Jim Gerritsen, organic farmer from Maine and President of OSGATA, was not discouraged by the Bowman vs Monsanto decision both because of the broad differences between the cases and the length of time the Court of Appeals has been considering the OSGATA vs Monsanto suit.
“Monsanto seems to be the one that should be sweating at this point,” said Gerritsen and explained it was a positive indication that the justices had been considering the appeal for 4 months. If the appeal had no validity, it could have been easily and quickly dismissed.
OSGATA initiated the suit in hope of securing protection from harassment and unjust lawsuits for organic farmers who ardently avoid use of Monsanto products. As it stands, organic growers can have their crops contaminated by Monsanto GMO pollen and still be subject to prosecution. Monsanto admits to filing more than 150 aggressive lawsuits against family farms since 1997. More than 500 farms a year are ‘investigated’ by Monsanto.
Gerritsen expects OSGATA vs Monsanto to be decided very soon. I had the pleasure to speak with Gerritsen after his presentation at the Slow Money National Gathering a few weeks ago. Slow Money is an organization that promotes financial investments that benefit soil fertility and work to solve food insecurity. They facilitate the meeting of forward thinking farmers and investors. Here is the conversation I had with Gerritsen;
LM – Given the resources Monsanto has, it seems their motivation behind harassing farmers must be something other than financial. What reasons do you think are behind Monsanto’s bullying of farmers?
Gerritsen – Essentially, GE crops are all about control. If you gain sufficient control, you then have access to unlimited financial gain. Carlo Petrini (Founder of Slow Food and Terre Madre) just very eloquently said that there is more to life than the striving for money. I don’t think the folks at Monsanto got that memo.
Monsanto considers itself stronger when it’s able to create this air of intimidation in rural America and I think that’s not how you behave in a democracy. That’s not how you treat honest farmers.
LM – Speaking of democracy, what do you make of the recent so-called Monsanto Protection Act?
Gerritsen – Monsanto needs to work on being a better citizen in this country and treat their fellow citizens with respect, and treating the democratic process with respect, which does not mean inserting preferential treatment into financial bills like the continuing resolution. That was blatantly unconstitutional, blatantly unfair, and blatantly unconstitutional. And if Monsanto wants the respect of the people, they need to play by the rules and not place themselves above the law.
It is a preposterous notion that they can get their friends in congress to give them protection from the judiciary – which is the people’s ability to find redress. We have a separation of powers and should this bill ever be challenged, it absolutely would be thrown out.
We’re grateful the bill will be sunsetting on September 30, 2013, with this temporary continuing resolution and it’s important that congress not make this mistake again. The peoples last recourse for justice is the court system. That’s why the farmers (OSGATA) have gone to court. We seek to gain protection we have not been able to gain otherwise.
LM – I interviewed someone recently who said even (long term biotech advocate) Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack believes Monsanto overstepped with the Monsanto Rider.
Gerritsen – Any high school kid taking their first class in civics knows that Monsanto overstepped. Unconstitutional is unconstitutional. It is my understanding that Secretary Vilsack has asked council within the USDA to look into the constitutionality of this (Monsanto rider) and he should be commended for that.
It would have been better if President Obama would not have signed this into law.
LM – I was told they couldn’t separate the rider from the rest of the appropriations bill.
Gerritsen – Then veto the whole thing.
It comes down to integrity. Either you have integrity or you don’t and when you’re told you can’t do something… Well… that’s not how I look at it. You simply do what you need to do. And when things are wrong, you make the decision and you bear the consequences and in my book, (signing the bill) was the wrong decision. In my book, he now needs to fulfill his promise from 2007 to have labeling of GMO foods. It’s what the American people want. It's what the public will get. And with 80 to 90 percent of the public in favor of labeling, Obama could be a hero by fulfilling his promise.
LM – What do you think it will take to get the general public riled-up enough about the rider that they take action and really put pressure on legislators?
Gerritsen – Maybe turn off the TV.
LM – Well, yes, but the bill sunsets in September, that doesn’t give us much time to get people animated about the issue.
Gerritsen – I just got a letter from the Organic Caucus in Congress and they are up on this and working with the appropriations committee to ensure that the Monsanto Protection Act does not make its way into further appropriations bills.
LM – Do you have a sense the average citizen is increasingly concerned about the role of Monsanto and big ag in the food system?
Gerritsen -Oh, absolutely. I think there’s been a seed change in people’s attitude about GE crops in the last 24 months.The prop 37 campaign in California was a landmark event and the only way the biotech corporations were able to win was to blatantly lie and fool the voters, which tells me that they have so little faith in the technology – the biotech technology – that they felt they couldn’t win if they told the truth so they created tremendous lies to win the election.In effect, I think, they have mobilized people nationwide who were already so unhappy with biotech and big ag activity and behavior, and that’s why you see now that 37 states are developing labeling initiatives.
We hope to see efforts in Maine, Vermont and Connecticut succeed. Efforts in the state of Washington are looking very hopeful as well.
LM – Is the state approach to labeling more impactful than a national effort?
Gerritsen – Everybody can see how dysfunctional our federal government is, and it’s not that I don’t think the fact that some leading congressmen in the last week have introduced a GE labeling bill, isn’t good, but that will only come about because of pressure the states are putting on them.
LM – How has Monsanto responded to the state initiatives?
Gerritsen – In the state of Maine, Monsanto sent lobbyist who called supporters of labeling ‘luddites’. That kind of disrespect of citizens is not the way to engage the public in a positive manner. It brings disrespect upon Monsanto and maybe they don’t care, but hard-working Mainers – 91% who want labeling – should not be insulted when they are simply carrying out the democratic process.
LM – Back to OSGATA vs Monsanto. What are developments with the appeal OSGATA filed in January?
Gerritsen – We are expecting a ruling any day now. It was heard by a three justice panel in the Federal Court of Appeals and we need at least two in our favor in order to resolve the case favorably. If we should lose the case, we do have the option of appearing before the US Supreme Court.
The farmers went to court two years ago for justice and we aren’t going home until we get justice.
LM – I know this is a difficult question to answer, but do you have a gut sense of how it will turn out?
Gerritsen – The only thing I know that’s harder than deciding how justices are going to rule, is deciding when a cow is going to birth her calf. And I’ve learned to never predict when a cow is going to have that calf.
LM – How has involvement in this case changed your life?
Gerritsen – We’ve never been so far behind in shipping seed potato orders as we are this spring. There are only so many hours in a day and I’m grateful for my family who have picked up the slack for my being involved in the lawsuit and GMO labeling bills.
But the point is, this is the opportunity of democracy. To the extent that we want to celebrate the freedom we have in this country, we have to get involved. Every person has a role to play and I’m happy to play that role.
LM – You might also be behind in shipping, in part, because so many more people are growing food.
Gerritsen – Yes. The last four to five years have been the best for seed companies since World War II and that’s a good sign. More people are growing gardens. People who have had gardens are expanding them. People are becoming more serious about growing food for their families and sometimes, they grow enough extra that they can sell at farmer’s markets. So I think this trend is a great demonstration of our self-reliance and I think that’s really positive for our country.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF FOOD DEMOCRACY NOW AND OSGATA