Small Victory: Organic Farm Allowed to Sue for Wafting Pesticide Contamination


Image: benketaro via flickr

Does anyone remember the case of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto after the company's Roundup Ready canola had drifted onto his farm without him knowing about or wanting it? A new case in Minnesota could be just the opposite scenario: Oluf and Debra Johnson say that pesticides from surrounding conventional farms have been wafting onto their 1500-acre organic farm—damaging their crop and impacting their profits. A court has now ruled that the Johnsons can sue to recover their losses for this illegal contamination.The suit did not happen without previous attempts to rectify the problem. When the Johnsons first found the pesticide on their farm in 1998, they asked the company spraying it, Paynesville Farmers Union, to take precautions when spraying. The company agreed, but it kept happening.

Here's a summary of how the incidents have played out, from the Judicial View:

In the 1990s, Oluf and Debra Johnson began the three-year process of converting their conventional family farm to a certified-organic farm to realize the higher market prices for organic produce and seeds. Oluf Johnson posted signs at the farm's perimeter indicating that it was chemical free, maintained a buffer zone between his organic fields and his chemical-using neighbors' farms, and implemented a detailed crop-rotation plan. He also notified commercial pesticide sprayer Paynseville Farmers Union Cooperative Oil Company of the transition. He specifically asked the cooperative to take precautions to avoid overspraying pesticide onto his fields when treating adjacent fields.

Despite the Johnsons' requests, in 1998, 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2008, the cooperative sprayed pesticide and herbicide on fields adjacent to theirs in a manner that violated Minnesota law, causing chemicals to land on the Johnsons' farm. Oluf Johnson complained to the cooperative after the 1998 incident, and it apologized, promising to "make it right." But when the Johnsons gave the cooperative an invoice documenting their losses from the overspray, the cooperative refused to pay.

The Johnsons had to sell their crops at lower, nonorganic prices, and to get their farm meet organic standards again, had to burn their fields, plow under soybeans and take their fields out of production, the Star Tribune reports.

They sued the Paynesville Farmers Union in 2009 under charges of negligence and trespassing, but the district court threw out the suit.

The Appeals Court, in its recent ruling, disagrees. According to the Star Tribune, "It said that thrown objects and even bullets constitute trespass, and that the state Supreme Court has ruled that beekeepers can collect damages for pesticide-contaminated bees that destroyed their hives."

This is big news for the organic industry, and a sign that people are waking up to the fact that nature is a giant open, shared space. Just like in Percy Schmeiser's and other similar cases, where genetically modified seeds couldn't be prevented from drifting onto non-GMO farms, pesticides and other chemicals do not stay on farms where they're sprayed, no matter how large or small. The air can easily carry them with unintended, unpredictable, and often unidentified consequences.

And this is just in the air. I wonder if we'll get to a point where groundwater contamination can also be the grounds for a suit.

More on pesticides:
Pesticide Lobby Blames Organics for Americans Not Eating More Veggies
Apples Beat Out Celery As Most Contaminated Produce
Poison In The Hive: High Levels Of Pesticides & Breakdown Products Found In Bees Wax & Pollen
Two-Headed Fish Spark Concern Over Pesticide Contamination

Tags: Agriculture | Chemicals | Farming | Pesticides