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Supreme Court rules for Monsanto in seed case

May 17, 2013 | 0 comments


The Supreme Court ruled on Monday (May 13) that an Indiana farmer had violated patent law by growing soybeans from his local elevator without paying Monsanto for their seed technology.

Vernon Hugh Bowman, 75, uses Monsanto’s "Roundup Ready" technology on his Indiana farm and pays the company’s technology fee on the seed. However, the practice that got him involved in this case was what he did for a second crop each year.

He bought soybeans from a local elevator and planted them, reasoning that this second crop was more at risk from weather-related failure and he couldn’t afford to pay for the regular, higher-priced seed.

Since more than 90 percent of the soybeans grown today contain this genetically modified ability to withstand glyphosate herbicides, Bowman believed he should be able to spray this second crop as he normally did – with Roundup.

Most of the plants survived. Bowman, who farms 300 acres, saved seed from this second crop and also used more beans he had bought at the elevator.

This week the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this action violated Monsanto’s patents on its seed.

The farmer was open about what he had been doing with the later-planted bin-run beans because they were a motley collection of soybeans and because he didn’t think it would matter to Monsanto.

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the opinion for the court, said the decision was narrow – that it wouldn’t necessarily apply to other cases involving self-replicating technologies like DNA cell lines and vaccines.

What the farmer had done amounted to illegal copying of the original, patented herbicide-resistant beans, the court said. Kagan wrote that farmers could use elevator beans for feed, or to re-sell, but couldn’t use them as seed.

The opinion stated that the problem in this case was how Bowman had used the beans from the elevator – making additional soybeans (eight generations worth) without Monsanto’s permission.

In what many had dubbed a "David versus Goliath" case, Bowman had argued that the beans were just doing what comes naturally in reproducing.



Kagan said that a ruling in favor of the farmer would have destroyed the value of Monsanto’s patent.

Farmers using Monsanto’s patented seed sign contracts promising not to save seed and the company for years has prosecuted farmers and seed cleaning businesses as part of its campaign to protect this technology.

When Monsanto sued Bowman in federal court in Indiana, the judge ruled that Bowman must pay the company $84,000 in technology fees the company should have been getting.

A U.S. Court of Appeals specializing in patent law also ruled in favor of Monsanto and Bowman appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on the case in February.

Monsanto praised the high court decision Monday, saying it protected patent law applications to new technologies and provided assurance to inventors that their innovations would be protected.

CropLife America (CLA), an 80-year-old association that represents developers, manufacturers, formulators and distributors of plant science solutions for agriculture in the United States, said it welcomed the decision in Bowman v. Monsanto.

"The Supreme Court’s decision affirms the importance of investing in modern technologies such as biotech seeds, which represent just one of the many tools that farmers must rely on in order to meet today’s agricultural challenges," said Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CLA.



Opponents of recombinant technology and Monsanto’s control of seed and herbicide markets were disappointed, saying the decision means that the company’s dominant position in agriculture will continue.

"This decision is a setback for farmers," said Andrew Kimball, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which had filed a Supreme Court brief in support of Bowman’s position.

"The food movement will not be stopped by one misguided ruling," Kimball added. "The Center for Food Safety is committed to protecting farmers from patent persecution and furthering the goals of seed independence to create a more sustainable agricultural future."

The group feels seeds should be safeguarded as a public good, giving farmers the right to save seed.

Dave Murphy, executive director and founder of Food Democracy Now, called the court’s decision "a huge win for Monsanto, and a major loss for America’s farmers and consumers.

"The Court has now handed corporations even more control over what our families eat," he added.

Currently, Food Democracy Now is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, "Organic Seed Associations et al. v Monsanto," which is looking at the issue of unwanted cross-pollination of organic and non-GMO crops by Monsanto’s patented genetically-engineered plants.

Murphy called this week’s Supreme Court decision "deeply troubling, immoral and a very bad sign for the future of our nation’s food supply."

At issue in the Bowman case was a legal doctrine called patent exhaustion – an important question for new inventions that are capable of self-replication, like seed, and the implications if the patent is honored only on the first sale.

In her opinion, Kagan wrote "In the case at hand, Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article. Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct. We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit."

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