Let's say you're an organic farmer here in Connecticut, and your cornfield gets fertilized by windblown or bee-transported pollen from your neighbor's crop. You could become the next target of an angry agri-business giant and lose your organic status.
Monsanto is the king of genetically modified seeds. In fact, it's the world's biggest seed producer, and it's got a rip-out-the-throat reputation for going after farmers it believes have "stolen" its patented products.
A group of organic farmers, seed producers and foodies (including some from Connecticut) is currently suing Monsanto to stop the St. Louis-based conglomerate from taking people to court over crops that "may become contaminated by Monsanto seed."
Bill Duesing, executive director of the state chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, traveled to New York for a recent federal hearing on the case. "We packed the courtroom with farmers from 20 states and Canada," Duesing says.
The lawsuit charges Monsanto filed at least 144 lawsuits against farmers over a 13-year period, across 27 states and Canada. Organic farmers say hundreds more have been threatened with legal action or intimidated by Monsanto. The farmers are "not seeking any monetary compensation"; they are "pre-emptively suing Monsanto and seeking court protection ... from Monsanto-initiated patent infringement lawsuits," according to a press release from the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"Monsanto never has and never will sue a farmer if our patented seed or traits are found in his field as a result of inadvertent means," company spokesman Thomas M. Helscher said in an email last week. "Accordingly, there is no real controversy between the parties and the case should be dismissed."
According to Monsanto officials, the number of lawsuits the company has filed against those patent-infringing farmers is a tiny, insignificant number compared to the more than 250,000 agricultural operations it services in the United States.
Some farmers have used Monsanto's products illegally, the company's critics admit, but they also insist organic farmers have every reason to try to avoid having their natural crops cross-pollinated.
Duesing says lawyers for the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association originally expected Monsanto to simply agree never to go to court against anyone whose crops were "unintentionally contaminated."
"Instead, Monsanto put the heavy guns on it," Duesing says, and is fighting back in court.
The issue of genetically modified food is a huge one in Europe and is growing here.
(Monsanto last month reported a nicer-than-anticipated profit for its seed-fertilizer-pesticide-herbicide operations in 2011, making a tidy $126 million for the last quarter. But its only disappointment was in the area of vegetable seed sales. The New York Times quoted one Monsanto exec as blaming "softness in the European market" for those sluggish seed profits.)
Legislation to require genetically modified foods be labeled as such in Connecticut took its first step in the General Assembly last week. "People have a right to know what they're eating," says state Rep. Dick Roy, a Milford Democrat and co-chairman of the legislature's Environment Committee.
Roy knows the bill will face opposition from Monsanto and the food industry, and says a court challenge is dead certain if the proposal actually becomes law in this state.
If you think all this is something we shouldn't really have to worry about in Connecticut, consider that GM crops are already being grown here and may be contaminating all kinds of local crops.
"A number of [Connecticut] dairy farmers use [genetically modified seeds] to grow their cow corn," Duesing says. He's also heard that GM seeds for sweet corn (the kind you buy for corn-on-the-cob) will be available for planting this year.
"I don't think people go to farmers' markets to buy genetically modified corn," Duesing argues.
Of course, Monsanto and theU.S. Department of Agriculturetake the position that there's no essential difference between GM foods and non-GM foods, and thus there can't be any health risks associated with what some critics are calling "Frankenfood." And if there's no difference, there's no reason to label stuff differently because that might worry people.
Agri-business advocates say GM crops are more drought-resistant, use less pesticides and herbicides and can produce more food than "natural" crops.
Organic types and an increasing number of foodies insist we simply don't understand the risks and point to some recent studies indicating humans can get genetic information from foods we consume.