Monsanto’s Patent Powers Hinge on Supreme Court Decision

Posted February 19, 2013 in Consumer Law Litigation by

Cupped hands holding seeds


The United States Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case that will determine if patents on genetically modified seeds also extend to the future generations of seeds that they produce. The justices appeared likely to affirm lower court findings that agriculture patents do protect multiple generations of GMO seeds, according to the Associated Press.

The high court is hearing the appeal of Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman, who started buying GMO soy seeds from agriculture giant Monsanto in 1999. Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds are designed to resist Roundup brand herbicide, and they’ve grown to dominate the soy seed market in recent years. Monsanto has commercialized their innovation by requiring farmers to buy new seeds from them for each crop, and by prohibiting them from planting any of the previous year’s harvest.

But because about 90 percent of America’s soy seed is Roundup Ready, it’s tough for farmers to find seed that isn’t protected by Monsanto’s patent. So when Bowman bought a blend of commodity seed from a local grain elevator to use in his late-season crop, his purchase inevitably contained a large percentage of Monsanto’s GMO variety. He planted and re-planted that load of seed for eight years, until Monsanto sued him for patent infringement in 2007. In 2009, a court ruled in Monsanto’s favor, ordering Bowman to pay $84,456.


Justices Skeptical of Farmer

During today’s arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts asked “why in the world would anybody” invest in agricultural innovations if GMO patents could be so easily undermined by farmers replanting their first season’s harvest.

“What [patent law] prohibits here is making a copy of the patented invention and that is what [Bowman] did,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, who noted that Bowman is free to use his commodity seed purchase for a variety of agricultural purposes that aren’t prohibited by Monsanto’s patent.

Bowman’s lawyer, Mark Walters, argued that it was unfair for Monsanto to exert such broad control over the bulk of the nation’s soy seed supply while farmers “assume all the risk of farming.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, which is expected by June, will be closely watched by America’s farmers. But it has also commanded the attention of the nation’s biotechnology and computer industries, which frequently produce products that are self-replicating or that can be easily copied. If the Supreme Court sides with Monsanto as expected, it could embolden researchers and developers pursuing innovations in genetics, nanotechnology, computer software and other fields.

What do you think of Monsanto’s case? Are they meddling with small farmers, or are they rightfully protecting their expensive intellectual property? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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