By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - A federal judge has ruled in favor of global seed giant Monsanto Co, dismissing a lawsuit brought by a consortium of U.S. organic farmers and seed dealers who said their industry is at risk from Monsanto's growing market strength.
U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald, for the Southern District of New York, threw out the case brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and dozens of other plaintiff growers and organizations, criticizing the groups for a "transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists."
The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed the suit last March on behalf of more than 50 organizations challenging the agricultural giant's patents on its genetically modified seeds. The group wanted 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.
But Judge Buchwald said Monsanto had not sued or even started the process of suing anyone of the plaintiffs or anyone in "similar stead."
"We're disappointed. We think the judge erred in her ruling," said Jim Gerritsen, spokesman for the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
Daniel Ravicher, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said farmers stop growing certain crops to avoid being sued by Monsanto and the court's refusal to protect those farmers was a mistake.
"Her decision to deny farmers the right to seek legal protection from one of the world's foremost patent bullies is gravely disappointing," said Ravicher. "Her belief that farmers are acting unreasonable when they stop growing certain crops to avoid being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement should their crops become contaminated maligns the intelligence and integrity of those farmers."
Monsanto is the world's largest seed company and a leader is development and marketing of genetically altered soybeans, corn and other crops. The company has developed a reputation for zealously defending its patents on its genetically altered crops, which include patented "Roundup Ready" soybeans, corn and cotton. The crops are favorites of U.S. farmers because of their ability to withstand herbicide treatments.
Monsanto has filed 144 patent infringement lawsuits against farmers between 1997 and April 2010, and won judgments against farmers they claimed made use of their seed without paying required royalties.
Many U.S. farmers have claimed that their fields were inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto's biotech seeds without their knowledge, and the issue has been a topic of concern for not only farmers, but also companies that clean and handle seed.
But the court ruling said there was no likelihood that Monsanto would pursue patent infringement cases against the organic farmers, who have no interest in using the company's patented seed products.
"This decision is a win for all farmers as it underscores that agricultural practices such as ag biotechnology, organic and conventional systems do and will continue to effectively coexist in the agricultural marketplace," said Monsanto general counsel David Snively.
"This ruling tore down a historic myth, which is commonly perpetuated against our business by these plaintiffs and other parties through the internet, noting that not only were such claims unsubstantiated but, more importantly, they were unjustified."
Monsanto has said that it is committed to never suing farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields.
Judge Buchwald said in her ruling that Monsanto's promise should be a source of comfort.
"Even were there credible threats of suit from defendants, there is no evidence that plaintiffs are infringing defendants' patents, nor have plaintiffs suggested when, if ever, such infringement will occur," she wrote in her ruling.
The case is Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. v. Monsanto Company et al., No. 1:11-cv-2163-NRB.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)