(Beyond Pesticides, October 7, 2008) After months of grassroots pressure by the Genetic Engineering Policy Project, Center for Food Safety and others, Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 541, The Food and Farm Protection Act, on September 27, 2008. Under this law, farmers that are unknowingly contaminated by genetically engineered (GE) crops in California are now protected from liability. Monsanto, which has aggressively litigated to protect its seed patents, must now use a protocol to investigate farmers and sample their crops under legal standards that require notification.
“We’re pleased to see that this bill will give farmers new protections from legal implications related to GE crops,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director for Center for Food Safety. “While it is a compromise, it’s still an important step in the right direction.”
AB 541 protects California farmers who have not been able to prevent the inevitable – the drift of GE pollen or seed onto their land and the subsequent contamination of non-GE crops. Farmers with crops that become contaminated by patented seeds or pollen have been the target of lawsuits brought by biotech patent holders, most notably Monsanto. Further, if their contaminated crops cause harm to other farmers, the environment or consumers, farmers have not been protected from that liability. AB 541 provides protections for farmers from such liability. The bill also establishes a mandatory crop sampling protocol to level the playing field when biotech companies investigate alleged patent or contract violations.
A similar bill was signed into law by Maine’s Governor Baldacci on April 14, 2008. According to the non-profit organization Protect Maine Farmers, the bill prevents lawsuits for patent infringement against farmers who unintentionally end up with GE material in their crops; ensures lawsuits that do occur will be held in the state of Maine; and, directs the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources to develop and implement specific practices, or Best Management Practices, for growing GE crops.
Concern about contamination by GE crops was recently addressed at the national level by the U.S. Court of Appeals. On September 2, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a nationwide ban on the planting of GE Roundup Ready alfalfa pending a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Court determined that the planting of genetically modified alfalfa can result in potentially irreversible harm to organic and conventional varieties of crops, damage to the environment, and economic harm to farmers. Although the suit (Geertson Seed Farms, et al. v. Johanns) was brought against U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forage Genetics and Monsanto entered into the suit as Defendant-Intervenors. Beyond Pesticides is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
More and more GE crops are being grown around the world. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications reports that biotech crops grew by 30 million acres, or 12 percent, in 2007 for a total of 282.4 million acres worldwide. Also astounding is the fact that 2 million more farmers planted biotech crops last year to total 12 million farmers globally. Notably, 9 out of 10, or 11 million of these farmers, are resource-poor farmers. In fact, the number of developing countries (12) planting biotech crops surpassed the number of industrialized countries (11), and the growth rate in the developing world was three times that of industrialized nations (21 percent compared to 6 percent.)
There are many problems with GE crops as they are known to lead to insect resistance, create superweeds, contaminate other plants from the same species through pollen drift, harm human health, wildlife and other non-target organisms, contaminate soil, contain hidden allergens, negate religious and moral considerations, lead to antibiotic resistance, and unreasonable business contracts with farmers.