Policy Update: Good News and Bad News

Our small farmers took one step forward and one step back this week in New York, suffering a loss in the courts but a gain in the legislature.

The bad news: small farmers’ case dismissed 

You may remember GDNYC!’s coverage of the farmers’ solidarity rally in Foley Square last month. We were there to support small farmers in the landmark organic community lawsuit OSGATA vs. Monsanto. Corporate giant Monsanto is a major producer of genetically modified (GM) seed, which it patents and sells to farmers, adding a “technology fee.” The seed is engineered for various properties: pest resistance, higher yields, the ability to survive a heavy dose of Monsanto’s own pesticides. If this seed contaminates a farmer’s non-GM crops – if it blows in on the wind from a neighboring field, for example – Monsanto can sue the farmer for “patent infringement.” Farmers who have been saving carefully bred heirloom seeds for generations can have their work wiped out when GM corn or soybean seed sprouts in their field. It doesn’t matter how the seed got there; Monsanto treats these farmers as thieves of intellectual property. Facing huge legal fees and long court battles, many small farmers choose to settle rather than fight this corporate Goliath in court.

Taking a stand against these abusive patent lawsuits, over 30,000 organic farmers came together, pre-emptively suing the company under the Declaratory Judgement Act and seeking court protection. Monsanto moved to have the case dismissed, but in February, Judge Naomi Buchwald allowed the farmers to present an oral argument against the dismissal.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs and for organic farmers everywhere, Judge Buchwald sided with Monsanto last week and threw out the case. Jim Gerritson, organic seed farmer and president of OSGATA’s board of directors, called the ruling a “perversity of justice.”

“We reject as naïve and undefendable the judge’s assertion that Monsanto’s vague public relations ‘commitment’ should be ‘a source of comfort’ to plaintiffs,” he said. “The truth is we are under threat and we do not believe Monsanto. The truth is that American farmers and the American people do not believe Monsanto. Family farmers deserve our day in court, and this flawed ruling will not deter us from continuing to seek justice.”

The farmers have the right to appeal the ruling, and will most likely do so. Stay tuned on our blog as this important battle continues.

The good news: senators clear the way for farmers

It’s not all discouraging: farmers got a show of support from our senators this week. On March 6th, the bipartisan “Let New York Farm Act” won unanimous approval from the Senate Agriculture Committee, cutting restrictive taxes, fees, and needless red tape for New York farmers. The act includes such measures as reducing high registration fees for farm vehicles and extending investment tax credits to farmers.

At last week’s Just Food Conference in Manhattan, farmers like John Schmid wryly cited “government” as one of the major challenges faced by urban farmers, right up there with weather and weeds. Agriculture is one of the most heavily-regulated industries in the nation, especially in New York, and we hope the “Let New York Farm Act” will go a long way toward easing some of the pressure on our small growers.

- Catherine Lea

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