KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A consortium of U.S. organic farmers and seed dealers filed suit against global seed giant Monsanto Co. on Tuesday, in a move to protect themselves from what they see as a growing threat in the company's arsenal of genetically modified crops.
The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed the suit on behalf of more than 50 organizations challenging the agricultural giant's patents on its genetically modified seeds. The group is seeking a ruling that would prohibit Monsanto from suing the farmers or dealers if their organic seed becomes contaminated with Monsanto's patented biotech seed germplasm.
Monsanto is known for its zealous defense of its patents on a range of genetically altered crops. Its patented "Roundup Ready" soybeans, corn and cotton are favorites of U.S. farmers because of their ability to withstand herbicide treatments.
But Monsanto has filed scores of lawsuits and won judgments against farmers they claimed made use of their seed without paying required royalties.
Many farmers have claimed that their fields were inadvertently contaminated without their knowledge, and the issue has been a topic of concern for not only farmers, but also companies that clean and handle seed.
"This case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto's genetically modified seed should land on their property," said Dan Ravicher, executive director of PUBPAT, a nonprofit legal services organization, which filed the suit in federal court in the southern district of New York.
Monsanto called the lawsuit misleading and a "publicity stunt" and said it has never sued and has committed to never suing farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields.
Legal precedent supports the validity of Monsanto patents, the company said.
"These efforts seek to reduce private and public investment in the development of new higher-yielding seed technologies. While we respect the views of organic farmers as it relates to the products they choose to grow, we don't believe that American agriculture faces an all-or-nothing approach," Monsanto said in a statement.
Ravicher said co-existence is not possible for organics alongside Monsanto's biotech crops and said it was in Monsanto's financial interest to eliminate organic seed "so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply."
Monsanto's genetically altered seeds have been a market mainstay since the mid-1990s, and many of its rivals have their own brands of biotech crops that tolerate herbicide, resist insects and have other useful qualities engineered into them.
Organic and conventional farmers have always feared contamination of their supplies by the biotech crops, and those fears have grown as the U.S. government continues to approve more biotech crops.
In the last few months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cleared the way for biotech sugar beets, alfalfa, and a new type of biotech corn developed for use in ethanol.
Plaintiffs in the suit include 22 agricultural associations, 12 seed businesses and 26 farms and farmers from around the United States.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Sofina Mirza-Reid)