Food fight!

In September, a California federal judge made a decision that should help American small family farmers “beet” out their bigger corporate counterparts.

In September, a California federal judge made a decision that should help American small family farmers “beet” out their bigger corporate counterparts.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White made a huge impact when he announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service fell short on their job determining if Monsanto’s genetically altered sugar beets would mix their genes with other crops.

Hold up. So what does that exactly mean? To understand the issue, we have to go back in time a little bit. You see, Missouri-based Monsanto is the world’s leading producer of herbicide; you may recognize their product Roundup. Monsanto discovered a way to make seeds of a variety of crops resistant to Roundup, therefore making them able to thrive in the presence of the herbicide, while other plants and weeds wouldn’t. They did this by genetically modifying the crops. It’s all a bit technical from there.

Monsanto then copyrighted their genetic invention, just as any company would when they invent or create something new for the marketplace. And this is where the root of the issue lays and where the problem started.

Plants grow, consume and reproduce. It’s the reproducing part that Monsanto has no control over. When their genetically modified crops would pollinate, there was no way to guarantee that their pollen wouldn’t mix with other varieties of similar crops or other farmers’ crops who didn’t originally buy their Roundup-ready product. So when their plants did exactly that, the company got all up in a hissy over it. Since their crops were copyrighted, when their genes showed up on other farms not in business with Monsanto, the company went on a suing spree.

Small farmer after small farmer were taken into the courtroom over corn, soy and other crops, partially because the crops tested positive for the gene that Monsanto had copyright control over. The gene had simply blown in the wind over great expanses of land, onto a number of farmlands and mixed with other crops.

Yet another reason the corporate giant was able to sue so well was because their contracts allowed farmers to use their seed, but did not allow for saving the seed, something farmers have done for thousands of years. How is a farmer supposed to plant for the next season if they haven’t saved some seed from the last harvest? It seems that Monsanto was more interested in having farmers continually buy seed year after year, season after season. With this move to prevent farmers from saving seed, Monsanto really kind of made a jerk move. It’s one thing to want your product to stay where it is, but it is another to force farmers into dependency upon your company.

Farmers like Homan McFarling who, according to a January 2005 USA Today article, saved his soybean seed. Monsanto took McFarling to court over a charge of “technology piracy.”

Another example is farmer Kem Ralph, who in 2004 was sued by Monsanto for saving cottonseed for a friend. For saving cottonseed—Monsanto’s copyright-protected cottonseed—Ralph spent eight months in prison and was ordered to pay $1.7 million.

And here we are, years and hundreds of court cases later. Judge White’s decision will help turn back the tide of struggling farmers, at least struggling against a giant like Monsanto.

“The potential elimination of farmers’ choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or consumers’ choice to eat non-genetically engineered food…has a significant effect on the human environment,” White wrote in his decision.

White’s ruling currently only affects sugar beets, but there is the possibility that it will shed light on other crops suffering under similar practices.

As horrible as what Monsanto is doing, the truly sad aspect of all this is that it is not illegal. In fact, it is very legal and Monsanto had every legal right to do what they did. The issue at hand is much bigger than our law. Monsanto is basically copyrighting genes, copyrighting life. No one should have that ability and no one has that right, especially when great numbers of people, such as our farmers, are at stake.

Hopefully, this new legal development in the food fight against Monsanto will lead to other crops being reviewed. We can turn back this tragedy, and farmers can save their seed as they have practiced for thousands of years.