Blowin’ in the Wind: Genetically Modified Seeds As Environmental Contaminant? Organic Farmers Seek an Answer to the Problem of GM Contamination

Genetically Modified Seeds © Adaptive SeedImagine you’re painting your house blue. Just as you’re applying the last coat, your neighbor drives past and hits a pothole. A bucket of bright red paint is flung from his truck, leaving an unflattering spray of purple across your home’s façade. Then the manufacturer of that red paint writes you a letter informing you that you’re being sued because he patented that purple hue.

It’s akin to the problem of genetically modified (GM) contamination. Monsanto, the corporate giant responsible for such ingenuities as Agent Orange and DDT, has, since 2005, been the largest seed company in the world. Monsanto seeds are patented because of their particular genetic modification. Some are “Roundup Ready”—Roundup being the Monsanto-produced herbicide to which those seeds are immune. Others contain bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a pesticide implanted directly into the plant’s DNA.

Monsanto has already successfully sued farmers from both the U.S. and Canada for selling or cultivating seeds with their patented genes. Many of these farmers claim that their seeds were contaminated by wind carrying pollen from neighboring farms or from passing trucks. The vast majority of these farmers cannot afford to go to court. The Center for Food Safety estimates that by 2006, somewhere between 2,391 and 4,531 “seed piracy matters” were handled by Monsanto, with only 112 of these going to court.

Genetically Modified Seeds © thinkstock

Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still are something of a power couple in the organic food movement. Both from Southern California, they met a year after graduating college and soon after were working on an organic farm. “I wanted to do something more real and hands-on than all of the stuff I learned about in school,” says Kleeger, “and I also wanted to do something that promoted life—not just human life, but every part of the living system that is this planet.” Very quickly, their interests turned to seeds. “We realized that the foundation of farming is seeds—the foundation of everything is seeds—so we might as well dig deeper.”

In 2006 they co-founded The Seed Ambassadors Project, which advocates for the cultivation of diverse seeds, “to promote people maintaining relationships with the food plants that nourish us.” They have since met with government officials in several European countries and worked side-by-side with Thai farmers, spreading their message and sharing seeds along the way.

Nearly three years ago, the couple began cultivating Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home, Oregon. Situated on 30 acres of land, the farm is “transitioning organic” (land must be cultivated organically for at least three years before it can attain certification), but Still says the lack of certification doesn’t hurt their sales to local farmers’ markets or their community supported agriculture (CSA) membership. “Our CSA members understand that we don’t use chemicals,” he says. “They don’t need us to be certified organic because they know we are organic.

Genetically Modified Seeds' width=The couple’s seed company—Adaptive Seeds—focuses on rare, diverse and open-pollenated varieties that can be saved and selected over time to adapt to specific climate and production needs. Still explains: “It’s our vehicle for disseminating the interesting diversity that we really value.”

If Open Oak Farm were to be contaminated by GM seeds, their livelihood and mission would be ruined. But, says Still, it is not an organic vs. GM problem. “We want to be certified,” he says, “but even if we weren’t ever to certify, we would want the same kind of protection… the same kind of respect from the commu-nity…because even conventional farmers [with a non-GMO policy] cannot tolerate contamination.”

On January 31, Kleeger and Still joined 82 other U.S. and Canadian farmers, seed companies and organizations representing hundreds of thousands of members and consumers from around the world in the first hearing of a class action lawsuit filed by the Public Patent Foundation in March of last year.

The plaintiffs are suing as a preemptive measure, to “seek legal protection from the threat of being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed.” The hearing is only the first step in what will likely be a long battle to protect small farmers.

The Seed Ambassadors are in it for the long haul. “It’s the early stages of a coexistence battle…[to determine] if Monsanto will be preventing us from being able to grow what we want to grow, and to produce the food we want to produce,” Still says. And for consumers, to eat what they want to eat.