A group of farmers sued Monsanto Co. (MON) in a challenge to the company’s patents for genetically modified seeds.
The lawsuit is preemptive to protect against patent- infringement claims should the farmers’ land and plants be found to have traits of Monsanto’s modified seeds, said the Public Patent Foundation, which filed claims today in New York on behalf of 60 family farms, seed businesses and organic-food groups. The lawsuit challenges the validity of 23 patents.
“It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by GM seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before,” Dan Ravicher, executive director of the patent foundation, said in an e-mail.
Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company, called the case a publicity stunt and said its lawsuits don’t target farmers for “the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields.” The company, which reported $10.5 billion in revenue for the year ended in August, alters the gene profile of seeds so they can withstand herbicides and fend off insects.
“While we respect the views of organic farmers as it relates to the products they choose to grow, we don’t believe that American agriculture faces an all-or-nothing approach,” the St. Louis-based company said in an e-mailed statement.
The farmers contend that wind-blown pollen from gene- altered crops can contaminate and destroy plants at nearby organic farms. Organic canola is “virtually extinct” because of genetically modified crops and the same could happen to corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa, the group said.
The Public Patent Foundation is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. The foundation also has been part of a legal challenge to patents on genetic sequencing in an unrelated case.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said in January that Monsanto’s engineered alfalfa may be planted without restriction, and rejected an option to require separate land plots for modified and non-modified seeds. The Center for Food Safety and organic farmers sued the Agriculture Department last year, challenging permits for sugar beets.
Monsanto also is in a patent fight with DuPont Co., which accused Monsanto of trying to monopolize the market for engineered seeds, and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible anticompetitive practices in the seed industry.
The farmers and seed producers in the lawsuit today said 23 Monsanto patents are invalid because they are obvious variations of expired patents. The group also said the patents don’t fulfill the requirement that they perform a “useful” function because the seeds are “injurious to the well-being, good policy or sound morals of society.”
Monsanto said its seeds provide a public benefit.
“These efforts seek to reduce private and public investment in the development of new higher-yielding seed technologies,” Monsanto said in the statement. “This attack comes at a time when the world needs every agricultural tool available to meet the needs of a growing population, expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050.”
The case is Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association v. Monsanto, 11cv2163, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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