High-stakes fight over soybeans at US high court

Feb 18, 2013 by Mark Sherman
This July 5, 2008 file photo shows a farmer holding Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soy Bean seeds at his family farm in Bunceton, Mo. A high stakes dispute over soybeans comes before the Supreme Court, with arguments taking place Tuesday. (AP Photo/Dan Gill, File)

(AP)—Vernon Hugh Bowman seems comfortable with the old way of doing things, right down to the rotary-dial telephone he said he was using in a conference call with reporters.

But the 75-year-old U.S. farmer figured out a way to benefit from a high-technology product, soybeans that are resistant to weed-killers, without always paying the high price that such genetically engineered seeds typically bring. In so doing, he ignited a legal fight with seed giant Monsanto Co. that has now come before the Supreme Court, with argument taking place Tuesday.

The court case poses the question of whether Bowman's actions violated the patent rights held by Monsanto, which developed soybean and other seeds that survive when farmers spray their fields with the company's Roundup brand weed-killer. The seeds dominate American agriculture, including in Indiana where more than 90 percent of soybeans are Roundup Ready.

Monsanto has attracted a bushel of researchers, universities and other agribusiness concerns to its side because they fear a decision in favor of Bowman would leave their own technological innovations open to poaching. The company's allies even include a company that is embroiled in a separate legal battle with Monsanto over one of the patents at issue in the Bowman case.

The Obama administration also backs Monsanto, having earlier urged the court to stay out of the case because of the potential for far-reaching implications for patents involving DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.

Monsanto's opponents argue that the company has tried to use patent law to control the supply of seeds for soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa. The result has been a dramatic rise in seed prices and reduced options for farmers, according to the Center for Food Safety. The group opposes the spread of genetically engineered crops and says their benefits have been grossly overstated.

"It has become extremely difficult for farmers to find high-quality conventional seeds," said Bill Freese, the center's science policy analyst.

Consumer groups and organic food producers have fought Monsanto over genetically engineered farm and food issues in several settings. They lost a campaign in California last year to require labels on most genetically engineered processed foods and produce. Monsanto and other food and chemical companies spent more than $40 million to defeat the ballot measure.

Monsanto says the success of its seeds is proof of their value. By and large, "farmers appreciate what we do," David Snively, Monsanto's top lawyer, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Herbicide-resistant soybean seeds first hit the market in 1996. To protect its investment in their development, Monsanto has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown. Farmers must buy new seeds every year.

Like almost every other farmer in Indiana. Bowman used the patented seeds for his main crop. But for a risky, late season crop, Bowman said, "I wanted a cheap source of seed."

He couldn't reuse his own beans or buy seeds from other farmers who had similar agreements with Monsanto and other companies licensed to sell genetically engineered seeds. And dealers he used to buy cheap seed from no longer carry the unmodified seeds.

So Bowman found what looked like a loophole and went to a grain elevator that held soybeans it typically sells for feed, milling and other uses, but not as seed.

Bowman reasoned that most of those soybeans also would be resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. He was right, and he repeated the practice over eight years.

He didn't try to keep it a secret from Monsanto and in October 2007, the company sued him for violating its patent. Bowman's is one of 146 lawsuits Monsanto has filed since 1996 claiming unauthorized use of its Roundup Ready seeds, Snively said.

A federal court in Indiana sided with Monsanto and awarded the company $84,456 for Bowman's unlicensed use of Monsanto's technology. The federal appeals court in Washington that handles all appeals in patent cases, upheld the award. The appeals court said that farmers may never replant Roundup Ready seeds without running afoul of Monsanto's patents.

The Supreme Court will grapple with the limit of Monsanto's patent rights, whether they stop with the sale of the first crop of beans, or extend to each new crop soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weed-killer.

The company sees Bowman's actions as a threat both to its Roundup Ready line of seeds and to other innovations that could be easily and cheaply reproduced if they were not protected.

"This case really is about 21st century technologies," Snively said.

Bowman and his allies say Monsanto's legal claims amount to an effort to bully farmers.

The Center for Food Safety's Freese points out that Monsanto's biggest moneymaker is corn seed, which cannot be replanted. "So seed-saving would have no impact on the majority of Monsanto's seed revenue," he said.

The case is Bowman v. Monsanto Co., 11-796.

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ScooterG
3 / 5 (10) Feb 18, 2013
"farmers appreciate what we do,"

My ass...

We all need to boycott monsanto and everything they produce.

---

Would it be so hard to incorporate computerized plant recognition with a mechanical "hoe" of some sort? Then a farmer could take out weeds with no chemical.

Hell...modern dairies identify individual cows by a laser scan of the shape of their udders - you telling me a computer couldn't learn the difference between a cotton plant and Johnson grass??
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2013
So Bowman found what looked like a loophole and went to a grain elevator that held soybeans it typically sells for feed, milling and other uses, but not as seed. Bowman reasoned that most of those soybeans also would be resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. He was right, and he repeated the practice over eight years.

Clever bastard. I hope he wins.

biggest moneymaker is corn seed, which cannot be replanted.

That's really the problem (and a source of much grief in thrd world countries. Stuff like that should be forbidden.
LariAnn
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 18, 2013
Imagine if you bought a patented device and, just because you have it in your house, your neighbor's patent-free device suddenly began displaying characteristics that you were told only your patented device had. Your neighbor didn't take tech from your device and add it to his, he just happened to be your neighbor. Finding Bowman guilty of patent infringement in the soybean case is, IMHO, tantamount to finding the neighbor guilty of patent infringement just because his neighbor bought a patented device and its presence next door changed his patent-free device into one like the patented device. Patent law cannot apply in this case - what is needed is a completely different intellectual property vehicle to cover genetic engineering, or self-replicating tech. Saving seeds for next crop should never be a crime - it's like forcing someone to buy something he doesn't really need. Monsanto is 21st century Mafioso, with the government's imprimatur.
Sean_W
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 18, 2013
Farmers and food processing/distributing industries should band together in an open source research effort to develop their own seeds and let farmers use the seeds and replant subsequent crops freely. It would reduce farm costs and dependency on Monsanto while managing prices for the food industry. Monsanto has a head start but much of the technology for doing this research is coming down in price and speeding up.
VendicarE
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2013
This is just another example of the pure evil that is Capitalism.
RJS
not rated yet Feb 18, 2013
Imagine if you bought a patented device and, just because you have it in your house, your neighbor's patent-free device suddenly began displaying characteristics that you were told only your patented device had.


Now imagine if your device actively hacked your neighbor's by airborne connection and installed a viral code. In Canada, your neighbor would have been prosecuted and lost, and now here.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2013
Unsurprisingly, we are now seeing increasing glyphosate tolerance in weeds.
Probably not an issue with Monsanto - it probably meshes well with their business model. All the more motivation for farmers to keep coming back for new solutions to their evolving problems.
VendicarE
not rated yet Feb 19, 2013
The principle crime here is the concept that you can patent a living thing and hence own it's offspring.

The concept is Pure Capitalist Filth.
ScooterG
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2013
This is just another example of the pure evil that is Capitalism.


With freedom - and capitalism - comes responsibility. Capitalism in and of itself is not evil, any more than 30-round magazines are evil.
Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2013
Cannot feel sorry for Luddites.
JimCool
not rated yet Feb 24, 2013
Monsanto should be run off the planet, they are sure trying hard to run us off.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2013
Capitalism in and of itself is not evil, any more than 30-round magazines are evil.

I actually agree with this part.

However, it seems obvious that a culture that goes too far down that road (i.e. unchecked capitalism) will maximize profit at all expense. And that means at the expense of taking responsibility.

"Who? Me? Take care of my waste?"
"Who? Me? Ne responsible for putting weapons of mass destroction in the hands of people? I only make/sell the stuff."
"Who? Me? Care about whether there's a free market? Monopolies make more profit."

etc.

(Any of that sound familiar from the news of the past years (or even days)?)