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Justice Sought for Farmers and Consumers

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*Update: Supreme Court refuses to hear case.

More than 100 million people are expected to tune in soon for the Super Bowl, munching their way through the second biggest food consumption day of the year, festivities complete with rock stars. When spectators numbered only in the hundreds and mainstream media was noticeably absent, the nation’s real rock stars were visiting Manhattan this week.  They’re American farmers.

Their only instruments were their voices, amplified by more voices into Foley Square outside federal district court.  One by one, the farmers, small seed companies and food justice advocates shared their reactions and concerns after a day in court with agricultural giant Monsanto.  A federal judge is deciding whether or not the farmers may pursue a declaratory judgment regarding seed patents.  The decision could have widespread implications.

“We were there to witness justice,” said potato farmer Jim Gerritson solemnly, “Farmers need justice. Farmers deserve justice.  Monsanto cannot deny us justice.  We need this court to hear the truth.” Another farmer from Vermont broke down in tears as she lamented whether the legal system is untainted enough for farmers to get a fair hearing. But Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now, one of 83 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, stated emphatically, “No matter what happens in that court, we will go forward.”  The judge is expected to announce in March whether the case may proceed.

The landmark case challenges whether a corporation has the right to patent life, in the form of seeds that can then be controlled by the patent holder.  It also seeks to protect farmers, particularly those trying to grow organically, from the unwanted spread of transgenic or genetically engineered seeds. Monsanto does not allow farmers to save its patented seeds from year to year, and many think the seeds are designed to stop reproducing in subsequent generations.

Monsanto’s opponents have grave concerns about the safety of GMOs or what they call transgenic foods with genetic makeup manipulated in a laboratory. There have been no long-term studies to prove they are safe for livestock or human consumption.  Yet, most of our food supply is already full of GMOs, especially processed foods.  In the meantime, a growing movement is asking the federal government to require labels identifying transgenic foods so consumers can have the power to decide for themselves. Communities are also supporting more local farmers and gardeners who are more likely to grow authentic plant varieties with organic and sustainable methods.

The diverse crowd that included some from the Occupy movement hung on every word from the farmers who’d traveled from all over the country to gather in New York City. They cheered when Farmer Frank Morton from Wild Garden Seed in Oregon, said, “The biggest threat to food security is when we can’t produce our own damn seeds.  So, let’s grow some seeds.”

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