16 March 2010

Our guest tonight is Paul Achitoff; he’s an attorney with Earthjustice, established by the Sierra Club in 1971 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and then became Earthjustice in 1997. We’ll be talking with Paul Achitoff about the case of the organic seed growers and environmentalists of Willamette Valley, Oregon against the USDA and Monsanto.


Last October, we interviewed Frank Morton. Frank Morton is the owner of Wild Garden Seed. Here’s how the website describes the company:

All of our seed is Organically Grown at Gathering Together Farm along the winding Marys River on the edge of Philomath, Oregon. All of this seed is open pollinated, untreated, germ and vigor tested in living soil mix, and well cleaned. . . .

Most stock seed for our crop production has been reselected under stress and disease pressure in our breeding nurseries at GTF and Shoulder to Shoulder Farm, five miles upriver in the colder dry foothills of the Oregon Coast Range. Many of these varieties originated in our on-farm breeding program for organic conditions and improved fresh market quality. . . . Other varieties have come to us over twenty years as heirlooms or reliable commercial standards, now with generations of selection on the farm.

Our ecological approach to plant breeding and crop protection generates superior strains and varieties for farmers who don’t use chemical crop protectants and fertilizers. The small-scale care and authentic fertility of our production fields yield fat seed with exceptional seedling vigor, a key trait for organic crop success.

We first heard of Frank Morton when we became vegetable gardeners, just a few years ago. Our son, an organic farmer, introduced us to a great lettuce collection—Morton’s Secret Mix. It had done well for him in Olympia, Washington where he first farmed, and it did equally well for us here in the foothills above the Sacramento Valley—pretty much year round. We became a fan of Frank Morton’s seed.

But then Frank Morton came to our attention In another way. He was involved in what has come to be called in various media sources a “David versus Goliath legal battle. When we first talked to him, Frank Morton had, along with a number of other plaintiffs, sued the USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), because they didn’t file an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beet plant, as they were required to do. Those suing the USDE and APHIS  were the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds. On September 21, 2009, Judge Jeffrey S. White, of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs—— requiring that APHIS prepare an environmental impact statement. But while the organic seed/environmental groups  won this round, the next round to play out was the remedy phase of the trial, which was scheduled to begin in December of 2009 in order to decide what would happen to Monsanto’s Round-up Ready transgenic crop.

Frank Morton explained in our interview with him last October that his livelihood depends on his ability to produce non-transgenic crops. When Monsanto began planting GMO sugar beet seeds in the Willamette Valley, farms producing organic were at risk of cross-pollination, thus contaminating their seed. In Frank Morton’s case, his red chard and table beets were threatened. And Morton said, “My market doesn’t have any tolerance for this.” Morton sells his seed both nationally and internationally. He explained: “I have to test my seed before I sell it and if I ever get a positive for genetic engineering traits, then my seed crops are worthless.”

The Hines Farm Blog described the win for the plaintiffs this way:

“This ruling marks a resounding renunciation of the USDA/APHIS 2005 decision to deregulate and thus allow the unrestricted commercial development of “Event H7-1”, a Glyphosate tolerant sugar beet engineered by Monsanto and the German company KWS. Deregulation opened the door for transgenic sugar beet production in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. The judge ordered that an environmental impact statement be conducted because USDA/APHIS failed to adequately consider the impact on the environment from stated cross contamination concerns, and the socio-economic impacts on consumers (eaters), farmers, and other market participants over the question of the continued availability of non-transgenic sugar beet crops.”


So in the first phase of the lawsuit, Frank Morton’s side won. The judge said that the USDA and APHIS had to do an environmental impact statement. But would the judge rule that Monsanto had to eliminate its crop, get out of Willamette Valley?

Judge White ruled this month on what happens to this year’s crop of genetically engineered sugar beets. And with us tonight is Paul Achitoff, the Earthjustice lawyer who argued the case for Frank Morton and his colleagues.

Our Questions for Paul Achitoff

Paul Achitoff. He’s an Earthjustice attorney and he has been arguing the case of the Willamette Valley environmenalists and organic farmers vs. Monsanto and the USDA.

Welcome Paul Achitoff.

Question for Paul Achitoff

  1. Earlier in the show we discussed phase one of the case of Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds against USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service(APHIS), for failure to require an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beet plant. On September 21, 2009, Judge White ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the food safety/organic farmer group, requiring that an EIS must be done by USDA before the deregulation of RR-sugar beets is valid. However, that was just phase one. The second phase is the “remedy” phase of the case. Can you tell us what that means?
  2. When did this phase of the case occur? How long did the hearing take? Who was there?
  3. What were the environmental groups asking for?
  4. What did Monsanto want? Was the USDA/APHIS still involved in this aspect of the case?
  5. And what were the results?
  6. What was Judge White’s rationale for his judgment?
  7. Were you surprised?
  8. What happens next?
  9. The motto of Earthjustice is “because the Earth needs a good lawyer.” What kinds of cases have you dealt with in your office in Hawaii?

Playlist for Ecotopia #78

1. Money Honey      3:36   Delbert McClinton   Room To Breathe

2. Good Health       3:37   The Dixie Hummingbirds    In Good Health

3. Seed         6:25   Afro Celt Sound System     Seed

4. Rain On The Scarecrow  3:46   John Mellencamp     Scarecrow

5. Worldwide Connected    5:06   The Herbaliser        Something Wicked This Way Comes

6. Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28   Peter, Paul And Mary         The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Life Uncommon   4:57   Jewel  Spirit

8. My Habits Are Killing Me          2:57   John Sheehan         Notes from Suburbia