Supreme Court to Hear Monsanto Patent Case: Can Farmers Reclaim Rights to Save Seed?

Soybean Seeds

Last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on whether Monsanto has patent rights on second-generation self-replicating seeds, accepting an appeal from one of the many farmers sued by the biotech behemoth. The case is one of seven scheduled to be heard next year, with arguments set to begin in January or February 2013 and a ruling expected by June. After two decades of riding roughshod over US farmers, will Monsanto’s dominion over farmers’ rights finally be reined in?

Farmer: “Monsanto’s Patent Rights Exhausted with Initial Seed Purchase”

Vernon Bowman, a 74-year-old Indiana soybean farmer, has appealed a ruling by a lower court that he infringed on Monsanto’s patent rights by using second-generation Roundup Ready soybean seeds. Bowman bought and used fully licensed Monsanto seeds for his first crop of the season, then purchased commodity seeds from a grain elevator for his late season crop.

Some of those commodity seeds were from Roundup Ready soybeans. Monsanto sued (like they do), and in September 2011 a US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling against Bowman for $84,456 in damages.

Last Friday the US Supreme Court announced that they will consider Bowman’s appeal, in which he will argue that Monsanto’s patent rights were exhausted when the genetically modified seed was initially purchased — rather than extending for infinity to each successive generation of seeds produced by the original crop.

Under current guidelines, according to a recent Digital Journal article,

Apparently you can  sell “second-generation” seeds to grain elevators for use as “commodity seeds,”  and Monsanto doesn’t require that there be any restriction on the sale. However, Monsanto claimed this was  infringement, even though the seeds were legally sold to the grain elevator and  then from the elevator to Bowman without restrictions.

Reuters reports that in his appeal to the to the Supreme Court,

Bowman said the Federal Circuit erred in finding that his use of the seeds for a natural and foreseeable purpose – planting – created new seeds that infringed Monsanto’s rights. He said earlier court decisions suggested that Monsanto had no rights after it made an initial sale.

Legal clarification of this issue is past due, and greatly needed.

Breaking New Judicial Ground

Unlike the lawsuit brought against Monsanto by organic farmers earlier this year, Bowman’s appeal involves the rights of farmers who use second-generation Monsanto seeds deliberately. In contrast with previous litigation against the rapacious biotech Goliath, this case represents a challenge to the fundamental business model (i.e. totalitarian stranglehold on US farmers’ seed access) that has enabled Monsanto to rake in profits hand over fist, at the expense of farming families and rural communities.

The current legal challenge over second-generation patent rights follows lawsuits against Monsanto by organic farmers, dioxin-contaminated town members, and farm workers earlier in 2012. Around the world so far this year, countries taking action to protect their environment and farming communities from Monsanto’s GMO crops include India, Poland, and the Phillipines. The Supreme Court announced it will hear Bowman’s appeal just weeks before CA voters will decide on Prop 37, which looks poised to set an uprecedented legal mandate for GMO food labeling in that state — and which Monsanto apoplectically opposes.

Even for those of us who embrace non-GMO agriculture, any challenge to Monsanto’s death grip on our nation’s food supply deserves acknowledgement and support. Some Wall Street analysts assert that victory for Bowman seems unlikely:

The smart money is on Monsanto winning this case. That was the decision of the appeals court. The Obama administration supports the decision. And the current, business-friendly Supreme Court will likely go the same way.

Then again, another writer points out that while there’s no guarantee the Court will side with the farmer,

I’ve often heard it said that the Supreme Court doesn’t take cases to pat the ruling judge on the back.

Down With Tyrants!

The case is Bowman v. Monsanto, 11-796, and bears close watching. If the Court rules that patents can never be exhausted for GMO seeds, farmers and citizens who value the fundamental right to food autonomy will face a new legal precedent quite difficult to modify or overturn in the future — with potentially disastrous financial consequences for US farmers, many already operating at the fringes of viability after recent droughts.

Conversely, a ruling against Monsanto on second-generation seed patent rights could be ‘cataclysmic‘ to the biotech giant’s current business model — and a welcome gasp of hope for struggling farmers, or for anyone who rejects Monsanto’s sovereignty over our nation’s food supply.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo by pawpaw67.

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