Monday, February 11, 2013

Supreme Court to mull control of patented seeds

The case of an Indiana farmer who planted the genetically altered soybeans he got from a local grain elevator has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Hugh Bowman's dispute with agricultural giant Monsanto has evolved into a larger debate of the influence big agribusinesses have on farmers.

Monsanto, the producer of the powerful herbicide Roundup and the genetically altered crops that resist the herbicide, says that Bowman's decision to plant the seeds he got from the grain elevator, seeds that farmers are expected to use for feed, was a violation of their planting agreement with farmers. "His legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments," Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post.

More than 90 percent of U.S. farmers use genetically altered soybean seeds from Monsanto or from companies licensed by Monsanto, Barnes writes. The beans farmers grow from these seeds have the same Roundup Ready traits that the original seeds did, but Monsanto has farmers sign an agreement that they will not use the beans for a second planting. Farmers also aren't allowed to sell the beans to others for planting, but they can sell them for feed to grain elevators like the one where Bowman got the beans in question, Barnes said.

Bowman, now 75, bought Roundup Ready seeds from 1999 to 2007 for initial plantings, but used seeds from the local grain elevator for second plantings, which are usually less profitable, making Monsanto's seeds less economical. Monsanto sued Bowman and was awarded nearly $85,000, Barnes said.

“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,” Bowman told Barnes. Monsanto has countered that its "notoriously high research and development costs" to produce living products like the Roundup Ready seeds merit legal protection for its seeds and their progeny. "Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies," Monsanto said in its court brief.

Monsanto has raised fears about what the end of a streak of legal victories for the company might do to the biotechnology industry, and many experts have argued in its favor, Barnes reported. Patents and patent protections lie at the heart of innovations like the ones that made Roundup Ready seeds available for farmers, some say.

Others say Bowman's actions represent the much larger issue of the domination of agriculture by a few businesses. Bowman maintains that his actions did not threaten Monsanto. “I see no threat in what I’ve done,” he told Barnes. “If there was, there’d surely be a hell of a lot of other farmers doing it. . . . As far as I know, I’m the only damn dumb farmer around” who has tried. (Read more)

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