Fight over patented soybean seeds moves to Supreme Court

By MARK SHERMAN Published: February 19, 2013
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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 on his 300 acres in Sandborn, about 100 miles southwest of Indianapolis, 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 formerly bought 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 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 farmers may never replant Roundup Ready seeds without running afoul of Monsanto's patents.

Patent rights at issue

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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