Spreading Gene Contamination

8 Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture: #3

Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-GE crops. And when this happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price.


The history of genetically engineered crops shows that it is not a matter of whether they will contaminate other farmers’ crops, but when and how much. Monsanto jeopardizes the future of the fast-growing non-GE and organic food sectors—and the environmental benefits they provide—by threatening the purity of their products through gene contamination.

A Pre-Emptive Strike from Organic Farmers

Monsanto has often taken farmers to court for growing its patented GE crop varieties in alleged violation of (or in the absence of) an agreement with the company.

While it's reasonable for the company to expect to be paid for its products, the issue becomes complicated when gene contamination enters the picture. It's one thing to sue a farmer for intentionally planting seeds containing patented genes without paying for them. It's another thing entirely when those genes turn up in farmers' crops without their knowledge—and, in the case of organic farmers, with potentially devastating consequences for their business.

Monsanto has disavowed any intention of suing farmers for inadvertent, small-scale violation of its patent rights. However, a group representing organic farmers, not content to leave the matter to the company's good intentions, in March 2011 filed suit in federal district court in New York, seeking a ruling prohibiting Monsanto from suing victims of gene contamination for unintentionally growing its products.

Monsanto filed for dismissal in July 2011; Judge Naomi Buchwald ruled in favor of Monsanto on February 27, 2012, dismissing the suit.

UPDATE: The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit judges affirmed the Southern District of New York’s previous decision that the plaintiffs did not present a sufficient controversy to warrant adjudication by the courts, after an oral appeal was heard on January 10, 2013 and a ruling was issued on June 10, 2013.  On September 5, 2013, the plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to attain full protection for American farmers but were denied the right to argue their case in court, January 13, 2014.

In a 2004 pilot study, UCS tested samples of conventional (non-GE) corn, soy, and canola seed and found low-level but pervasive contamination with DNA derived from GE varieties. Some 50 percent of the corn and soybean samples and more than 80 percent of the canola samples were contaminated, with Monsanto’s genes detected in all three crops.

Unapproved Genes in Food Products: Accidents Will Happen

Though they did not involve Monsanto products, a string of incidents over the last decade or so in which experimental or unapproved GE varieties were discovered in supplies of various crops and food products—including corn-based taco shells sold to consumers and long-grain rice bound for export—shows that GE contamination of non-GE crops continues to occur, with serious economic implications.

In the Starlink taco shell incident in 2000, costs to farmers from recalls and export restrictions were estimated at between $26 and $288 million, while the LibertyLink rice contamination discovered in 2006 had a significant impact on the export market for U.S.-grown rice, resulting in a $750 million settlement for injured rice farmers.

Roundup Ready Alfalfa: Disaster is Blowin' in the Wind

Monsanto’s recently-approved Roundup Ready alfalfa may pose an even greater contamination threat.

Alfalfa, the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States (behind corn, soybeans, and wheat), is pollinated by various species of bees. Pollination between alfalfa fields, which can spread pollen from GE to non-GE alfalfa, has been detected at four kilometers—and honey bees can fly up to five miles. Feral alfalfa growing outside cultivated fields can act as a further bridge for contamination.

Moreover, alfalfa seeds are very small, and thus can be blown by wind into neighboring fields. Experts say that widespread planting of Monsanto’s GE alfalfa is almost certain to contaminate organic and non-GE alfalfa.

Such an outcome could spell economic disaster not only for those alfalfa growers but also for organic and pasture-based dairy farmers, who depend upon access to organic alfalfa to feed their cows in the winter. The organic dairy sector was valued at $3.9 billion in 2010, representing nearly six percent of the total U.S. market for milk products.

Contamination and self-seeding of organic alfalfa in perennial pasture could require expensive roughing and re-planting, with no assurance that some GE alfalfa would not emerge years later from buried seed. 

Last revised date: January 9, 2012

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