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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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Bowman argued that Monsanto's rights to the seeds he purchased from the grain elevator were exhausted because they were not the first generation seeds other farmers had purchased and planted, but rather a mix of later generation progeny.

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"It didn't occur to my mind that this would be a problem," said Bowman, who doesn't have a computer at home so he goes to the library to read about his case on the Internet. "Farmers have always been allowed to go buy elevator grain and use for seed. You have no idea what kind of seed you're buying at an elevator. They claim I'm making a new seed by planting it. But that's far-fetched reasoning."

Bowman said he just wanted cheaper seeds. His legal brief states the technology fees for Roundup Ready soybeans have risen to $17.50 per bag by 2009 from about $4.50 in 1996.

BIG STAKES FOR BOTH SIDES

A lower court ruled in favor of Monsanto, and in May 2010 it ordered Bowman to pay the company $84,456. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with Monsanto in September 2011.

The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case has raised the hopes of those backing Bowman.

In one of a dozen briefs filed in his support, farmer, environmental and food safety groups claim the courts have carved out an exception to existing patent law that gives biotech companies too much control. They want the Supreme Court to broaden farmers' abilities to use seed, not restrict them.

"Through a patenting system that favors the rights of corporations over the rights of farmers and citizens, our food and farming system is being held hostage by a handful of companies," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, one of the groups supporting Bowman. "Nothing less than the future of food is at stake."

Bowman's attorneys allege specifically that the appellate court created a "conditional sale" exception to a long-standing doctrine of patent exhaustion in a way that conflicts with existing law.

But Monsanto backers say without extended patent protection, technology companies will not be able to recoup their investment in research and development, and advantageous new technologies could be shelved.

"This case presents a matter of great importance to America's farmers and the decision will have acute impacts on how agricultural producers will … meet the nutritional demands of a growing global population," states one brief filed by 20 soybean, corn, wheat and sugar beet growers groups.

Back on his farm in Indiana, Bowman is looking forward to his trip to Washington and said he does not understand what all the fuss is about. He said few farmers make use of commodity grain for planting, and he doesn't see how a few hundred acres of soybeans hurts Monsanto's billions in annual revenues.

"I bought new seed every year for my first crop. If I had such a good scheme why did I do that," said Bowman.

"If I done something wrong I should pay for it. If I didn't then I shouldn't. I don't think I did," he said. 

IN PICTURES: From Field to Fork: The foreign and domestic food chain

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