Supreme Court To Decide The Fate of Franken-Seeds And Farming
The U.S. Supreme Court heard opening arguments last week in a case that pits a small-time Indiana farmer against the country’s largest seed supplier. Their decision could change the course of agriculture in the Unites States.
The defendant, a 75-year-old soybean farmer named Vernon Hugh Bowman, argued that the multinational biotechnology corporation Monsanto is abusing patent protection of its Roundup Ready soybeans. The genetically modified (GM) plants are resistant to Roundup brand herbicides, also a Monsanto product.
Monsanto had previously won a suit against Bowman, who planted second-generation Roundup Ready seeds he had purchased from a grain elevator. Bowman is appealing that decision.
Protesters with Occupy Monsanto stood in the rain outside the Supreme Court building during the proceedings of the Bowman v. Monsanto Company, No. 11-796, case. The reportedly small turnout nevertheless represented the ongoing, largely youth-oriented protests that Monsanto faces around the world, most recently in Latin America.
“The question is do farmers legally own the seeds they purchased from a grain elevator?” Gene, a pseudonym-wielding activist with Occupy Monsanto, told Campus Progress. “If the Supreme Court sides with Monsanto, they are saying that Monsanto's patents never expire until the patent expires. If Bowman wins, they are saying that the patents are exhausted after the first sale, like all other patents.”
The Huffington Post reported that justices appeared to be leaning in Monsanto's favor.
Gene said that while the question of patent expiration is important, the real problem is "genetic contamination."
For a long time it worked like this: Farmer plants a seed, waits awhile, harvests plant and has seed again for next season. People did this for thousands of years, and it worked pretty well, but the introduction of GM (genetically modified) plants—Monsanto’s specialty—forever changed the game.
Monsanto operates in a legal gray area. The Supreme Court has said that the company can hold a patent on the plants it engineers, because those plants are protected as inventions. Normal, non-GM plants cannot be patented.
The tricky part, of course, is that Monsanto products can easily mix with ordinary seed, and the average farmer can’t tell the difference. Monsanto maintains a force of field agents to investigate illegal use of their products. The company, by its own account, has never lost a case.
Cody Bond is a reporter with Campus Progress.