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.

Soybean seeds. Photo: ITA Image Library, CC some rights reserved

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.

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22 Comments

  1. Are you kidding me?? There is only one issue at play here: the power of Monsanto to influence federal policy. Pstent protection is one thing, monopoly control is another. To pose this as a David-and-Goliath tale is woefullyy naive. Farmers like Bowman do not make the laws; Monsanto does.

    http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/monsanto-notified-that-us-department-of-justice-has-concluded-its-inquiry.aspx

    • The farmer willfuly and knowingly violated Monsanto's legal patent protection. Why shouldn't Monsanto protect it's patent?

      • I'm not concerned about Monsanto protecting its patent, I'm worried that the US judicial system might be swayed a wee bit by Monsanto's clout. After all, the State Dept threatened "retaliation"against European countries for their efforts to keep out Monsanto products.

        http://wikileaks.org/cable/2008/04/08PARIS714.html

        • It's a protetionist trade issue. Europe is using it to keep US farm products out to benefit their own farmers.

          • It's a little more complicated than that. The European public does not want GMO products in their marketplace. (I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with this position, BTW.) So, European farmers have no incentive to use Monsanto's seeds. This is different from, say, the US slapping tariffs on Chinese solar panels to make US panels more competitive – European consumers simply do not want the products that Monsanto is selling.

            The other part that raises my hackles is that it is the State Dept. taking part in these negotiations. Isn't that part of the government supposed to deal with negotiations between states (hence, the name) rather than negotiations between corporations and states?

          • This is in reply to Kirby, above. I just re-submitted it down here so it would be easier to read!

            It's a little more complicated than that. The European public does not want GMO products in their marketplace. (I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with this position, BTW.) So, European farmers have no incentive to use Monsanto's seeds. This is different from, say, the US slapping tariffs on Chinese solar panels to make US panels more competitive – European consumers simply do not want the products that Monsanto is selling.

            The other part that raises my hackles is that it is the State Dept. taking part in these negotiations. Isn't that part of the government supposed to deal with negotiations between states (hence, the name) rather than negotiations between corporations and states?

  2. They ordered him to pay $84,000!!! How many soybeans did he grow??? The judge should have fined him $84 and told Monsanto to take a hike.
    This is terrorism.

  3. More of these fights need to go the other way. Monsanto and many big business farmers can be real bullies regarding where their chemicals go. I gave up on our family garden in one of our old homes because every year, I would get the planting done only to have the big farmer who owns the next field over spray herbacides like Round-up a few days later. They always wanted to spray on windy days so the chemicals blew into our windows (giving everyone headaches if I didn't shut the house up soon enough) and contaminated my garden, destroying my tender seedlings and germinating seeds. It delayed my growing season by weeks while I waited for the chemicals to dissipate and eventually I decided that it wasn't worth it anymore.

    Do people have any recourse once Monsanto's nasty chemicals have made their private soil too toxic for heritage tomatoes or organic pumpkins? Do we have any recourse when the stuff blows into our open windows and makes us sick? No. I think that if Monsanto wants to have complete control over their modified genetic codes, they should also be required to maintain complete control of and responsibility for their chemicals.

    • Why blame Monsanto? Your problem is with the farmer.

      • The problem is with BOTH the large farmer and the chemical companies – and a government system that provides no protection for private homeowners who have their soil, crops, wells or air contaminated by industrial run off or blow off. This particular post is about patents and seeds but it points toward the larger issue of these huge corporations maintaining a stranglehold on American agriculture and enjoying governmental protections from private citizens and small agri-businesses who have been damaged by their products and/or policies.

        Monsanto wants to maintain a strict double standard – they want to be blameless if their chemicals cause damage but they want to collect profit every time their genetic code shows up in a crop – whether it was planted knowingly or whether natural, accidental cross-pollination has taken place.

        I suspect that Mr. Bowman will be found in the wrong as it seem clear that he expected at least a few of those seeds to be Monsanto offspring. But he's not the first farmer Monsanto has gone after recently and their demands seem to be fairly despotic to me.

        • monsanto own the rights to gene but take noresposiblty when the gene go astray that is why the organic farmers are so upset when you try to talk to monsanto about the problem they tell you it not there problem many nongmo farmers are also very upset at the double standard that monsanto can sue if the gene go astray but the farmer did not want monsanto gene

  4. Mr. Bowman signs an agreement every spring not to save any of the seeds from that years planting, I didn't see in the story where he saved any of those seeds, Now the seeds he picked out of the old grain to use didn't have any signed agreement on those seeds, He didn't get them from monsanto so there should be no problem , Monsanto doesn't have any case here and should be charged with a frivolous lawsuit at least with the way this story reads.

    • As I understand it, the farmer knew that the majority of the soy grown in his area and stored in that community bin was RR. He bought the beans and planted them. He then sprayed the emerged beans with Glyphosate thus indicating that he fully expected that they would be untouched by the herbicide.
      Monsanto has a patent on their process and the resultant product, the RR seed, until sometime in 2014. If they fail to protect the patent they may forfeit their rights.
      It will be interesting to read what the court decides. Monsanto is not the only seed breeder/technology company with something to lose.

  5. Monsanto needs to protect their patent, but more importantly, why is that farmer planting cheap seed? One of the basic principals of good farming is to use clean disease/pest free seed. That way you reduce pesticide use (and save money). Why use old soy beans swept up off some grain elevator floor?

  6. Oops! This blogs could use a little more flexibility in editing.

  7. for Shovel: (from Wikipedia "The European Union (EU) has possibly the most stringent GMO regulations in the world." This isnt strictly speaking a market place decision. The regulations have the effect of being protectionist, and are certainly in the interest of the big European competitors to Monsanto. Its probably a little more complicated than that, but not too much.

  8. @Peter – Yes, it is more complicated. Because of the very strong anti-GMO sentiment in Europe, they can trade on their products being "GMO free." At the same time, there are surely many farmers clamoring to get their hands on Monsanto's products, as well as many regions who would like to be on better terms with the US.

    My particular concern is with the State Dept intervening on Monsanto's behalf. There are plenty of other agencies who deal with trade issues; when the diplomatic service gets involved in this way it suggests a too cozy relationship between the corporation and the government.

  9. So this guy openly admits he was trying to get around the patent, right? If we want companies to spend their immense resources on research we have to allow them some patent rights. Sometimes it sucks but it is the price of continuing progress in agriculture. And this is from some one who openly told his Monsanto rep that they were the antichrist. The best hope we have to be able to feed the world over the next 50 years is to use the technology that these companies develop in conjunction with good agronomic practices.

  10. I'm not sure that spraying herbicides on every acre of cropland in this country is the best way forward.

    • Maybe not, but, when you can replace some of the more dangerous materials with much safer products and reduce the amoount applied it would seem that we are headed in the right direction. There has also been improvements in tillage tools. Each pass still takes time and fuel though.

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