by Steven Rosenfeld
Community activists win at key stage in court.
A coalition of Oregon organic farmers has beaten Monsanto—the corporate agriculture giant—in a landmark federal lawsuit that will make national waves by the way that their rural county banned the use of genetically modified seeds.
On Friday, Mark D. Clarke, a federal magistrate judge, dismissed a legal challenge brought by commercial farmers who use Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa seeds. The non-organic farms sought to overturn a 2014 ordinance passed by Jackson County voters that banned the use of such seed stock, claiming that the anti-GMO ordinance violated their right to farm.
However Judge Clarke concluded that exactly the opposite was the case. He held that the county’s no-GMO seed ordinance could take effect next week, citing earlier state legislation that protected commercial farms—in this case organic farmers—from harm from other commercial enterprises, such as the commercial farms whose GMO-laced alfalfa pollen gets carried by the wind and can’t be stopped from tainting organic crops.
“Farmers have always been able to bring claims against other farmers for practices that cause actionable damage to their commercial agriculture products,” Clarke wrote. “The Ordinance, by contrast, is enacted pursuant to section 30.935 [of state law], and serves to prevent such damage before it happens.”
The victory by Our Family Farms Coalition is notable in many regards. To start, Jackson County passed its ordinance before agribusiness giants successfully lobbied the Oregon legislature to pass a law banning counties from adopting this form of anti-GMO seed law. In contrast to many other anti-GMO campaigns across the country, Jackson County didn’t focus on requiring food labels to identify GMO ingredients—which federal courts repeatedly have thrown out as violating a food maker’s commercial speech rights. Instead, activists focused on barring the use of GMO seeds in the county, affecting only a few farms, as a way to ensure that crops and seeds produced on many more organic farms were not sullied.
“We just learned this afternoon that we have WON the Monsanto-backed legal challenge attempting to overturn our Jackson County ban on genetically engineered crops,” said an e-mail from the coalition. “The court upheld the Ordinance on the grounds that it was intended to protect against damage to commercial agricultural products, which is allowed under the Right to Farm Act, and because it was expressly allowed by the Oregon Legislature.
“While this is an incredible victory for family farmers standing up to GMOs, we do know there is a real chance Monsanto and their ilk could appeal this decision so the battle is not really over yet,” they said. “Also, the Plaintiffs’ claims that the GMO ban constitutes a constitutional “taking” will now have to be litigated in the second phase of the case.”
Monsanto is expected to appeal this district court decision to a federal appeals court, meaning this fight is far from over.