In a landmark case that could either make or break the biotechnology industry as we currently know it, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether or not corporate seed giants like Monsanto can legitimately sue farmers who reuse second generation, genetically-modified (GM) seeds to grow future crops without paying royalties on them.
As it currently stands, Monsanto’s patent provisions prohibit seed saving, and require that farmers buy new seeds for planting every single year. But if the Supreme Court rules that seed patent protections are essentially “exhausted” after their first generation of use, it could spell the end for the GMO industry’s reign of terror over American agriculture.
Indefinite patents on self-replicating technologies like GM seeds are invalid
The case, known as Bowman v. Monsanto, 11-796, involves an Indiana farmer by the name of Vernon Hugh Bowman who purchased GM soybean seeds from a discount grain elevator without paying royalties to Monsanto. The seeds were second generation Monsanto seeds, which means they were the product of Monsanto-patented soybean seeds for which usage fees had already been paid.
Adhering to a practice that farmers have been employing for generations, Bowman purchased the seeds from the grain elevator in good faith, recognizing that their parent seeds had already been legally purchased from Monsanto. But once Monsanto got wind of the sale, it decided to sue Bowman for alleged violations of its patent protection scheme.
After a federal appeals court sided with Monsanto in the case, declaring that the second generation seeds were still covered by Monsanto’s patents, Bowman appealed the case on the grounds Monsanto’s patents had already been exhausted. And some time between now and next June, the Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision in the matter, which will set a precedent for how all future seed patent disputes will be handled.
Saving seeds is essential to the perpetuation of agriculture
If the indefinite seed patent protections maintained by Monsanto are struck down, the biotechnology industry as we know it will likely collapse. The bulk of Monsanto’s business, after all, is supported by controlling the seed industry and blocking farmers from reusing its seeds. But since previous cases involving other types of “self-replicating technologies” have been struck down, there is a chance the courts will recognize this seed patent fraud and put a stop to it.
In a 2008 case involving LG Electronics Inc., for instance, the Supreme Court ruled that the electronics company could not enforce its memory-technology patents against Intel Corp. and various computer makers that install Intel chips in their machines. Similarly, it would appear as though the same type of ruling applies to Monsanto and its attempted enforcement of seed patents.
“If it’s overturned, it will have cataclysmic repercussions for the business model in the seed biotech industry,” said Chuck Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University (WSU)’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, to Bloomberg. “It would basically end the agricultural biotech industry as we know it, certainly for soybeans.”
You can view an updated status of the case as it progresses here: http://www.supremecourt.gov
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