Accounting for Agribusiness: The Litigation Option

Agribusinesses can directly and indirectly affect human rights. People concerned about agribusinesses’ negative behavior have a range of options for engagement. Some involve rather amiable collaborations, such as partnerships to improve corporate social responsibility. Other options are more combative, ranging from “naming and shaming” reports to litigation in the court system.

Litigation against corporations is generally lengthy, complicated, and expensive. In addition, corporations benefit from a legal status that enjoys certain rights but is immune from certain duties. In the United States, for example, corporations currently straddle a nonsensical line:  they are essentially “people” when it comes to free speech, but they are not always people when it comes to liability for certain crimes. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that “corporations are people, my friend,” only applies in certain situations – generally, when it benefits them.

There are a number of possible litigation claims that can be made against agribusiness corporations for human rights abuses or other negative impacts. The type of lawsuit depends, of course, on the type of abuse that has occurred. Litigation based on patent law, antitrust law, or tort law, for example, all provide potential ways of addressing corporate abuse in the food system.

One interesting and innovative case in the United States is Osgata v. Monsanto, brought by organic American farmers against the biotechnology company. Monsanto is known to sue farmers accused of patent infringement, yet it is increasingly hard for farmers to avoid contamination from pervasive hybrid seeds. Thus, the farmers in Osgata sought a binding legal covenant that would protect them from being sued for patent infringement if they are contaminated by the company’s transgenic seed in the future. Though a federal district court dismissed the case earlier this year, the farmers are currently appealing.

For egregious human rights abuses, an important litigation option is the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Currently, the ATS allows non-US citizens to litigate in US federal courts for certain violations of “the law of nations” that occurred outside of the United States. Sounds bizarre, right? Yet it’s an important tool for holding persons and corporations accountable for grave human rights abuses … and one that is currently under threat of being significantly narrowed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Next week, I’ll provide some more details about what the ATS is, where it came from, and how it could apply to agribusiness corporations.

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