By Ariel Schwartz
When a company starts patenting seeds, many lawsuits are bound to follow. According to the Center for Food Safety, agriculture giant Monsanto--manufacturer of genetically engineered seeds and controversial herbicies--has filed 144 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses throughout the U.S. One of the most important Monsanto lawsuits was put to rest this week, when the Supreme Court ruled that an Indiana soybean farmer named Vernon Hugh Bowman infringed on Monsanto's soybean patent by buying the seeds from a nearby grain elevator and then saving them. This would normally go against Monsanto's patent rights (the company doesn't allow seed saving), but Bowman argued that Monsanto's licensing terms were not applicable since he bought the seeds from a third party.
The Guardian explains what happened:
Bowman...had for years been faithfully signing contracts with Monsanto for his main soybean crop. More than 90% of the soybean grown in the mid-west is believed to be GM strains, like Round-Up Ready. But Bowman got into trouble when he decided to buy up junk seed from a local grain elevator and use it for a second, late-season planting. The advantage to the farmer was that such seeds were cheaper than the price demanded by Monsanto, and the late-season plantings were a riskier crop.
Monsanto sued, arguing that it maintained patent rights on the GM seeds even after sold on by a third party, and won a settlement of $84,456...which was upheld on Monday.
This is a big deal, mainly because it solidifies Monsanto's control of U.S. agriculture--and most likely, its future lawsuits against farms. Monsanto won't let researchers buy seeds for their work, and can deny research requests on a whim. The company's many patents--Monsanto is now in control of 60% of the corn and soybean seed markets in the U.S.--are causing seed prices to rise. At the same time, farmers have fewer seed options.
In a report, the Center for Food Safety discusses what it sees as the problem with the lawsuit:
The "conditional sale" exception upon which Respondents relied to bring alleged patent infringement claims against Petitioner Bowman and hundreds of other U.S. farmers is contrary to a century and a half of patent exhaustion doctrine. This Court should overrule it and reverse. In addition to re-affirming and clarifying that patent doctrine, the Court's decision can restore some much needed balance to U.S. agriculture, with significant benefits to farmers, agriculture, and the general public.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling, which denied Bowman's claims that Monsanto's patent was exhausted since he bought his seeds from the grain elevator and not the company itself. She wrote: "Patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission."
Perhaps this doesn't seem like a major ruling--indeed, Kagan herself claims that it's a narrow one. But it's part of a worrying trend. Remember: it was only a month ago that Obama signed the so-called Monsanto Protection Act. Step by step, our agricultural system becomes more consolidated, and therefore more vulnerable.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.