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soy bean close up

There’s a very important case in front of the Supreme Court today. The case involving Monsanto and a farmer could change genetically modified products, forever.

Today, Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, will appear in front of the Supreme Court today defending itself against Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old farmer from Indiana.

Bowman is appealing a 2007 federal court decision that ordered him to pay $84,456 in damages to Monsanto for violating the company’s  patents.

The story

Starting in 1999, Bowman began buying soybeans from a local grain elevator. He wanted cheaper seed for his second soybean crop because second harvests tend to be riskier and less bountiful than first harvests.

He purchased commodity feed grain. The beans were supposed to be used for feed. Instead, Bowman replanted the seeds for a second crop. Many of the soybeans he purchased also came with Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” genes in them. Many farmers in Bowman’s area used the patented soybeans then sold those beans to the grain elevator.

Whether or not Bowman was knowingly bought Monsanto seed remains to be seen, but he did plant and grow soybeans that were subject to Monsanto’s patent.

According to Monsanto, Bowman was in violation of the company’s patent on the genetically modified soybean, so the company took the farmer to court.

Listen to NPR’s coverage of the story.

Biotechnology patents

Monsanto’s products have a lot in common with products from companies like Microsoft and Universal Music Group. Why? Because Monsanto produces products that are easily replicated from one generation to the next.

Seeds grow into plants which produce seeds, right? Microsoft makes software for computers which can be copied and shared with relative ease. Universal Music Group publishes albums that, thanks to the internet, can easily be copied and pasted or shared from one computer to the next.

Monsanto, Microsoft and Universal all have vested interests in protecting the intellectual property they produce. Copyright and patent laws help protect the intellectual property of these companies so the companies can profit from the products they spent money developing.

CNBC puts it this way:

“Say you’re a Hollywood studio who spent a couple hundred million dollars on a blockbuster movie. Someone buys it on DVD, and then proceeds to copy the DVD and sell those copies at a profit. That would be against the law.”

Read the entire article. Who Owns Seeds? Monsanto Says Not You

Can you patent a living thing?

The short answer is yes. In 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed. This legislation made is possible to patent new varieties of asexually-reproduced plants.

In 1977, the first patent on a seed was issued to Earl Patterson of the University of Illinois.

Then, in 1980, the Diamond v. Chakrabarty case further affirmed that living things were eligible for patent protection.

These patents allow seed producers to protect their intellectual property. It basically prevents other companies from stealing the seed and selling it for profit, thus stealing thousands, even millions, of dollars from the parent company.

The owners of a patent can essentially control the terms of using the product. Monsanto, for instance, requires farmers to buy a new round of seeds every season. Monsanto owns the patents on its seeds, so it’s within Monsanto’s right to do so.

Bowman is using the idea of “patent exhaustion” as a defense. Patent exhaustion, “provides that the first unrestricted sale by a patent owner of the patented product exhausts the patent owner’s control over that particular item.”

If Bowman’s interpretation of the law holds, it could mean Monsanto has no control over its seeds after the first sale takes place. If patent holders have no control over their products after the first sale, it could change the way many industries do business.

Right vs. wrong

Forbes writer, Jon Entine, has little sympathy for Bowman. Entine calls Bowman’s actions ‘a deliberate fraud.’

But, Entine also calls attention to the way the case could impact future technologies, “The decision will turn on the minutiae of patent law, but the implications will extend to all cutting-edge technologies.”

This case isn’t about big business vs. small farmers, it’s about protecting a technology that spent years in development and cost millions of dollars to create.

Yes, it’s tempting to cheer for Bowman, but doing so implies that once a product is purchases the first time, it can be reproduced and resold infinately. It would be like buying and iPhone then exactly reproducing that iPhone and selling it as  an iPhone. Why would Apple bother making iPhones if it couldn’t make money from them?

I agree with Monsanto

I have to agree with Monsanto on this topic. The company spent millions of dollars and many years developing its line of Roundup resistant seeds. Why should anybody try to cheat them out of the profit to be made in helping the world’s farmers grow food.

Thanks to companies like Monsanto we have crops that resist disease, pesticides, pests, drought, flood and a myriad of other problems that face the world’s food supply.

Let them be the heroes. Don’t bash a company for doing a great job.


11:26 a.m. According to the LA Times:

“The justices strongly suggested that they would rule for Monsanto and decide that the company’s patent protection for its genetically modified seeds covers not just the first planting, but also seeds that are generated later.”

Read the story: Justices skeptical of farmer who planted patented seeds.


Will is Farm and Dairy's newest writer. He's recently moved to Lisbon, Ohio where he lives in a church turned community theater. He enjoys writing (of course), theater and hiking.
Will Flannigan
View all posts by Will Flannigan

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