Indiana soybean farmer Victor Hugh Bowman actually likes Monsanto's products, even though the agricultural giant is suing him. He tells NPR that he is a loyal user of Monsanto's genetically modified soybeans, which can resist applications of the popular weedkiller glyphosate, best known as Roundup.
But while the 75-year-old farmer happily buys his seed each year from Monsanto for his main crop, he has also been buying cheap additional soybeans on the side every year to serve as the seeds for a second, riskier crop when weather conditions might not be ideal. He buys soybeans from a grain elevator, where they are known as a "commodity crop." These soybeans aren't sold with the intent to be planted. Although they come from multiple sources they undoubtedly contain some of Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready genes.
Bowman started planting this second crop in 1999, thinking that Monsanto wouldn't care. He was wrong. "He wanted to use our technology without paying for it," David Snively, Monsanto's general counsel, told NPR. Monsanto does not allow farmers to replant their crops without buying new seeds from the company each year.
Monsanto sued in 2007. Bowman lost and was ordered to pay $84,000 for the use of Monsanto's patented genes. He appealed the decision and the case has now gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments about the case on Feb. 19.
Monsanto has a long history of suing farmers for infringing upon its patents. According to a new report from the Center for Food Safety (pdf), the company has won more than $23.5 million from farmers and farm businesses in patent infringement lawsuits. Since altered genes can be transferred into other organisms through accidental breeding and pollination, the center calls this a case of "guilty by GE contamination."
Quite a few companies — and the Obama administration (pdf) — back Monsanto's suit, which has its own website devoted to the case called Innovation at Stake. Monsanto argues that the case is about much more than soybeans. "A decision in Mr. Bowman's favor," the website says, "could render future innovation in a variety of easily replicable technologies — including cell lines, DNA molecules, and nanotechnologies — economically unfeasible, as biotech firms, universities, and other institutions engaged in research and development would be unable to rely on the patent system to protect against unauthorized copying of their inventions."
But Bowman's lawyers — who have taken the case on a pro bono basis — say that even if something is patented, the person who bought it can still resell it. "You're allowed to put it on Craigslist and sell it, you're allowed to use it for your 'ordinary pursuits of life' is the quote from some of the old cases that we're relying on," attorney Mark Walters of Frommer Lawrence and Haug told NPR.
Snively says that argument doesn't apply to Monsanto, since its patents apply to self-replicating technology — the stuff of genetic life. The Center for Food Safety counters that "seed patent policies reduce seed diversity, impair agricultural scientific research and innovation, and contribute to environmental harms."
As with all Supreme Court cases, it could be months after this week's arguments before a decision is released.
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