Farmer's fight with Monsanto in US Supreme Court
A 75-year old Indiana farmer faces off against agri-giant Monsanto in the US Supreme Court today.
It's a David vs. Goliath story, focused on a modern-day legality: patents. And the decision could have a huge impact – on the future of genetically modified crops, or anything that self-replicates, such as medical research or software.
Vernon Hugh Bowman grows soybeans, corn and wheat, on his 300 acre farm. His main crop is genetically modified "Roundup Ready" soybeans. When he plants in the spring, he signs a standard agreement with Monsanto not to save any of his harvest and replant it the next year. Monsanto demands exclusive rights to supply that seed.
This story is well-told in Dan Charles' report for NPR:
"But here's where Bowman got into trouble: He also likes to plant a second crop of soybeans, later in the year, in fields where he just harvested wheat.
Those late-season soybeans are risky. The yield is smaller. Bowman decided that for this crop, he didn't want to pay top dollar for Monsanto's seed. "What I wanted was a cheap source of seed," he says.
Starting in 1999, he bought some ordinary soybeans from a small grain elevator where local farmers drop off their harvest. "They made sure they didn't sell it as seed. Their ticket said, 'Outbound grain," says Bowman.
He knew that these beans probably had Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene in them, because that's mainly what farmers plant these days. But Bowman didn't think Monsanto controlled these soybeans anymore, and in any case, he was getting a motley collection of different varieties, hardly a threat to Monsanto's seed business. "I couldn't imagine that they'd give a rat's behind," he snorts.
Bowman told his neighbors what he was doing. It turned out that Monsanto did, in fact, care."
Monsanto sued Bowman, and he was ordered to pay Monsanto $84,000 for infringing the company's patent.
Bowman appealed. Now the Supreme Court will decide.
There are so many issues at play here. Monsanto says a victory for Bowman would allow farmers to essentially save seeds from one year’s crop to plant the next year, eviscerating patent rights.
The New York Times reports that in its court filings, Monsanto says such a ruling would “devastate innovation in biotechnology.” And, “Investors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies.”
The decision might also apply to vaccines, cell lines and DNA used for research or medical treatment, and some types of nanotechnology.
Software companies, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, say in court filings that a decision against Monsanto might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software can be easily replicated. But they also say a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file.
Critics of biotechnology say Monsanto has a stranglehold over farmers, which has led to rising seed prices and fewer high yield varieties that are not genetically modified. Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center of Food Safety tells the NY Times that and a victory for Bowman could help.
Tags: agriculture, farming, GM crops, GMO, Monsanto, seeds