Organic Farmers Challenge Monsanto Patents in NY Court Hearing

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A U.S. District Court hearing in downtown New York today could determine the eventual fate of several organic farmers from across the country, including some in upstate New York.

The hearing centered on a "pre-emptive" suit led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGTA), against agricultural giant Monsanto. In it, OSGTA says it brought "this action to protect [farmers] from ever being accused of infringing patents on transgenic seed." Monsanto filed to dismiss the case, and today lawyers for both sides made their arguments in front of U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald.

Monsanto has a long history of using patents to control the market share on crop seeds. Its genetically modified seeds are considered intellectual property, and Monsanto regularly sues small family and organic farmers who are found using the seeds without a license, even if they were unaware of the mistake. Wind drift and birds often transfer the seeds without farmers knowledge, a regular occurence in nature -- but the use of genetically modified seeds is not allowed if farmers want to market their crops as "organic."

As a result, many, many small organic and family farms have found themselves ruined or in massive debt to the St. Louis company, and so in March 2011, the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed a motion on behalf of OSGTA and 82 other farming associations (including the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York), challenging Monsanto's iron-clad patents.

The farmers' cause has since been picked up by the Occupy movement, which mobilized today on Twitter and outside the courthouse in support of the farmers. They carried signs with slogans like "Stop Frankenfruit," and "Keep Our Food Open Source."

The judge has said she will make a decision on whether the case will move to trial by March 31.

[keyana.stevens@keyanastevens]

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