The Supreme Court of the United States recently rejected farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman’s claim that the soybeans he bought from a grain elevator were not covered by Monsanto’s patents. The case, named Bowman v. Monsanto Co., verifies Monsanto’s claim that progeny bought second-hand from sellers, such as local grain elevators, cannot be planted without the company’s consent. This claim stems from the company’s right to restrict farmers from using a portion of their yield to plant new seeds – under their patent, all crops must be planted using new seeds provided by the company.
In 1996, Monsanto perfected a technique that allowed them to implant herbicide-resistant genes into soybean seeds (and other crops). These genes are meant to complement their Roundup brand of herbicide, allowing the plants to grow in chemical conditions that kill weeds and other unwanted plants. The effectiveness of this agricultural technique caught widespread use, with over 90% of the 275,000 soybean farmers in America now using both Roundup and the complementary GM seeds. As a result, almost all soybeans sold on the US market, whether national or local, have Monsanto’s patented genes in them, thereby restricting farmers from using other sources for seeds. Out of options, these farmers must go back to Monsanto every year to plant their crops lest they, like Bowman, end up using GM seeds.
The problem that most farmers have with this restriction is that the prices of the seeds are drastically marked up, with some GM strains costing three times more than their regular counterparts. The increased price, alongside new climate conditions due to global warming, have pushed farmers such as Bowman to find loopholes in the patent laws just to survive. Unfortunately, Bowman’s case is only the latest in a successful series of trials that Monsanto initiated against patent-violating farmers. In total, the company has sued 146 farmers, with 11 going to trial; all courts have, so far, agreed with Monsanto’s claims.
The Supreme Court of the United States treated Bowman v. Monsanto Co. like a standard patent infringement case. Under this treatment, it is evident that Bowman violated the company’s patent. After all, he bought cheap seeds from a grain elevator that were meant for consumption, not for planting. He consciously bought from a seller that used Monsanto’s GM seeds in hopes that the genes will carry on to the next generation so that they would be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. And, what’s more, he continued to do this practice for 8 years, continuing even after Monsanto contacted him to stop.
However, what should also be considered are the extreme conditions that farmers are pushed into due to Monsanto’s strict patent law. Being forced to buy new and expensive seeds every year severely limits the options available to GM farmers. As well, since the patent is focused on the genes found in seeds and their progeny, it puts even regular soybean farmers at risk of patent infringement if these genes are accidentally cross-pollinated from neighboring farms. What this essentially amounts to is a monopoly on crop harvests and crop seeds, preventing farmers and other horticulturalists from experimenting with different crop strains through artificial selection. Farmers are forced, under this patent system, to support genetically modified food, putting many at risk if something goes wrong with Monsanto’s processes.
Photo by Thierry Ehrmann