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Biotech genie outgrows bottle

Published on April 8, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on May 6, 2011 8:19AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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Organic farmers and trade organizations have filed suit in federal court, asking a judge to void the patents held by Monsanto for various genetically modified crops.

The complaint says the patents are invalid or unenforceable because they violate provisions in the U.S. Constitution and the Patent Act, which requires inventions to be useful.

"Because transgenic seed, and in particular Monsanto's transgenic seed, is 'injurious to the well-being, good policy or sound morals of society' and threatens to 'poison people,' Monsanto's transgenic seed patents are all invalid," the complaint said, citing a court precedent from the early 1800s.

The plaintiffs say they want to prevent the biotech developer from suing them for patent infringement if their crops are accidentally contaminated with transgenic traits.

Monsanto called the lawsuit a publicity stunt. If that's the case, the plaintiffs have accomplished their mission. Still, we suspect they hold out some hope that they will prevail.

Patent attorneys interviewed by the Capital Press didn't give plaintiffs much of a chance. They will first have to prove that they have standing to file suit -- that Monsanto has threatened or is preparing to sue a farmer for unintentionally growing plants with the company's patented traits. While Monsanto has been aggressive in protecting its patents from farmers who want the benefits of transgenic traits without paying for them, the company has repeatedly said it would not sue growers whose crops are contaminated with those traits through no fault of their own.

If that hurdle is cleared, plaintiffs would have the equally difficult task of proving Monsanto's innovations are either not the product of unique research, or that they are harmful to society. Again, the lawyers we talked with say the burden of proof is high.

We have to admit, as novel as it may be, the idea of "un-inventing" something through judicial order has certain appeal. Television, traffic enforcement cameras and hot dogs injected with cheese quickly come to our mind as innovations we could live without.

But innovations -- even those that may inconvenience one group or another -- are not easily stopped.

In the earliest days of the last century, pastors and moralists warned that the mobility offered by the automobile tore at the fabric of American society because it encouraged libertine behavior and endangered the virtue of young, unmarried couples. To both the delight and chagrin of the last five generations, they were right. Still, the advantages of an important technology outweighed those concerns.

Genetically modified crops are the proverbial genie that cannot be forced back into its bottle. Those who develop and manufacture the technology, and produce a crop based on it, have the responsibility to adhere to a reasonable standard of safety and be held accountable when they don't.

Those who oppose the technology should sue when they suffer actual harm. Until then, they would be better served to find ways to reasonably coexist in the modern world.


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