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US agriculture wary as Monsanto heads to Supreme Court

An Indiana grain farmer will take on global seed giant Monsanto Co at the U.S. Supreme Court next week in a patent battle that could have ramifications for the biotechnology industry and the future of food production.

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The case also is important to regenerative medicine that relies on stem cell technologies. A stem cell by definition is a cell that can self-replicate, thus the case may answer the question of whether a patentee can control progeny of a patented stem cell, according to Antoinette Konski, a partner with Foley & Lardner's intellectual property practice group.

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Monsanto, a $13 billion behemoth in agricultural seed and chemical sales, also sees the case as much bigger than itself.

"This case really centers on the question of twenty-first century technology such as what we bring in agriculture and other companies bring for say stem cell research or nanotechnology.... and how they're going to be handled under principles of intellectual property law," said Monsanto general counsel Dave Snively.

SELF-REPLICATING

Because seeds self-replicate, creating progeny when planted, they are unlike more traditional patented products. Using a computer or smartphone does not create more computers or phones. But using a seed can make new seeds.

For generations all around the world, farmers have practiced the art of saving seed, holding onto some of the grain they harvest each season to plant in a subsequent season. The advent of patented biotech seeds has changed that as Monsanto and rival seed developers barred farmers from seed saving, arguing that if farmers do not buy new seed each year the companies cannot recoup the millions they spend to develop the specialty seeds.

Transgenic crops, which splices genes from other species into plant DNA, have given farmers crops that resist insects and tolerate treatments of herbicide, making killing weeds easier for farmers. The majority of U.S. corn and soybean acres are now planted with patented biotech seeds.

The case before the Supreme Court traces its roots to 1999, when Bowman decided to plant a "second crop" of soybeans after he harvested winter wheat from the farmstead he runs near Sandborn, Indiana.

While he used Monsanto's Roundup Ready engineered seeds for his main, or "first" crop, Bowman said he decided to use inexpensive commodity grain that he could purchase from a local grain elevator for his "second" planting of soybeans in late June. Yields are generally lower for late-planted soybeans because conditions tend to be more optimal in April and May.

The mixture of grain Bowman bought, which he dubbed "junk," carried no patent technology agreement and no directive prohibiting seed saving as do the bagged and branded soybean seeds sold by Monsanto and other seed companies.

The soybean crop turned out so good that Bowman saved some of the seed generated by the plants and sowed them the following year for another late crop. He repeated the process year after year, sometimes supplementing his second planting with more commodity grain he used as seed. All the while he continued to buy first-generation seed each year for his main crop of beans. For those purchases, he signed required "technology agreements" pledging not to save the offspring of those seeds.

Monsanto began investigating Bowman's planting activities in 2006 and asserted that even though he was not saving seed from the progeny of the first-generation seeds he bought, his use of commodity grain and the progeny was a patent violation.

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