Organic Farmers Lose Monsanto Lawsuit, Vow to Appeal Decision

Organic farmer Tom Willey and his family—circa 1998

By Vic Bedoian

Organic farmer Tom Willey and his family—circa 1998

Organic farmers will appeal a federal court ruling that dismissed a legal action against Monsanto Corporation. Dozens of organic farms, seed companies and businesses sought legal protection against lawsuits for patent infringement, should their crops be contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed. But U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald found the claims “unsubstantiated.”

The plaintiffs were represented by the Public Patent Foundation in New York. Daniel Ravicher, executive director, promises an appeal, “While I have great respect for Judge Buchwald, her decision to deny farmers the right to seek legal protection from one of the world’s foremost patent bullies is gravely disappointing. Her opinion is flawed on both the facts and the law. Thankfully, the plaintiffs have the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, which will review the matter without deference to her findings.”

The court decision was a setback for the nation’s organic food producers. They wanted to protect themselves against lawsuits from the agribusiness giant Monsanto if their fields were accidentally contaminated by nearby transgenic crops. With an innovative gambit, they filed for a Declaratory Judgment—preemptive protection against a possible Monsanto suit. But federal judge Buchwald didn’t buy their argument. She concluded organic farmers did not prove any injury done them and that their case was “a transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”

Tom Willey grows a wide variety of organic vegetables on 75 acres in Madera County and is one of the plaintiffs. He says the decision trivialized organic farmers’ concerns about GMO [genetically modified organism] contamination, “Organic farmers who are trying to export their crops to other nations that have bans against GMOs, they’re having their harvests inspected and found to be contaminated and then turned back. Other organic growers, particularly up in the canola growing areas of Canada, have had to completely abandon organic canola growing in one of the best regions because of the incessant contamination from Monsanto genes. So it’s not insignificant.”

Monsanto says the ruling makes clear it would not pursue action against farmers whose fields inadvertently contained the company’s patented seed products. But lawyers representing the plaintiffs call Monsanto one of the world’s foremost patent bullies. The Public Patent Foundation’s senior counsel, Sabrina Hassan, doesn’t believe Monsanto’s reassurances, “We know that Monsanto has been very aggressive in its litigation tactics and believe that it actually has sued farmers who have had trace amounts, or maybe more than trace amounts, of Monsanto seed on their property through no fault of their own.”

Without legal protection, the burden of keeping their crops from contamination is on the organic farmer. Willey says it’s a major concern, “Nature has designed pollen to go where it pretty much wishes, and so it is very difficult to protect yourself against this kind of contamination. It shouldn’t be my responsibility to keep it off my farm, it should be the responsibility of Monsanto and my neighbor who might be using that kind of technology to keep it where it belongs, and we feel that’s an injustice.”

Willey says there are other approaches to controlling transgenic technology than the long, risky court process. Mendocino County has already voted to ban GMO crops, the first such action in the state. Currently, there is a petition gathering effort for the Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act to be placed on the November 2012 ballot. You can get more information at, or contact Judy Nelson at if you want to sign the petition or volunteer for the effort.


Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at