Farmers taking battle of replanting
By Marty Russell
Some area farmers plan to ask for congressional assistance in their fight against a Monsanto Corp. policy that prohibits them from saving and replanting genetically engineered seed.
In a meeting this week in Verona, area farmers gathered and signed a petition they plan to present to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairman of the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee.
"They want to ask him to introduce a bill in Congress to make it clear that Monsanto can't prohibit them from saving and reusing seed," said Tupelo attorney Jim Waide, who is representing some of the farmers being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement.
"The Plant Variety Protection Act specifically says farmers can replant their seed but some judges have said that doesn't apply to genetically altered seed," Waide said. "We think Congress intended that to cover all seed."
At issue is Monsanto's policy that requires buyers of its genetically altered, insect-resistant soybean, cotton and corn seed to agree not to save any unused seed or replant seed from the crop grown with the Monsanto seeds. Monsanto says it is simply enforcing its patent on the products but farmers, in countersuits, claim the practice violates state and federal anti-trust laws and amounts to a monopoly on the product.
"They chose to buy that seed and they fully understood it was for one-time use only," Lori Fisher, public affairs director for Monsanto, said of the 400 to 450 farmers being sued nationwide for patent infringement. "Obviously the reason Monsanto goes to these lengths is to protect our patent rights and our rights under (the Plant Variety Protection Act)."
The act protects new varieties of plants as they are developed but there is a specific exemption that allows farmers using the plants or seeds to replant from those crops. However, the act doesn't specifically address how those new varieties are created.
Science and the law
"Science has kind of gotten ahead of the law," said Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, an attorney in Waide's law firm who is spearheading local farmers' defense against Monsanto's lawsuits.
"Genetically-engineered seed is not addressed under the plant law," said Samuel-Burnett.
Monsanto filed a motion this week seeking a temporary injunction to prevent Lee County farmer Mitchell Scruggs from planting new crops using its products or the fruits of those products.
"We believe they have no authority to extend patent authority past the first year," said Samuel-Burnett. "But they want to control not just that seed but the progeny of that seed."
Scruggs could not be reached for comment Thursday but Samuel-Burnett said she is attempting to convince a judge not to grant the injunction against Scruggs sought by Monsanto.
"We're kind of in a holding pattern right now," she said of the case.
A check of cases filed in the Northern District of federal court in Mississippi shows patent infringement cases against two area farmers including Scruggs. In addition, a class action countersuit by farmers against Monsanto and charging anti-trust violations has been transferred from the Northern District of Mississippi to federal court in Missouri, where Monsanto is headquartered.
The genetically engineered seed has been on the market since 1996.