Farmers cannot replicate Monsanto seeds for second crop, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled against an Indiana farmer who sought to cut the planting cost of his soybean crop by relying on subsequent generations of a patented Monsanto herbicide-resistant seed.

Dan Gill/AP/File
A farmer holding Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soy Bean seeds at his family farm in Bunceton, Mo., July 2008.

Farmers cannot by-pass the patent protection provided for genetically-altered seeds by producing a new generation of seeds with the same traits, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a unanimous decision, the high court sided with Monsanto Co. in a dispute with an Indiana farmer who sought to cut the planting cost of his soybean crop by relying on subsequent generations of Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready soybean seed.

The company developed a genetically-altered strain of seed that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. Monsanto sells the new seed under a licensing agreement with farmers that permits its use to grow one crop for sale or consumption.

The company explicitly bars farmers from using the resulting crop to seed future cultivation. The 20-year patent is designed to ensure that Monsanto reaps the rewards of its invention and innovation, and to provide an incentive for more innovation.

The farmer, Vernon Bowman, complied with the company’s licensing terms when planting and harvesting his first crop of the season. But rather than pay the higher price for Monsanto’s seed, Mr. Bowman purchased soybeans from a grain elevator and used them to seed his second crop of the season.

He assumed that most of the newly-purchased soybeans carried the genetic alteration that would render them resistant to the herbicide. After planting the seeds and applying the herbicide, the non-resistant plants died off, but most of the crop survived. 

The farmer used this cost-saving technique for eight seasons – until Monsanto found out. The company sued for patent infringement.

Bowman’s lawyer argued that Monsanto’s patent protection did not extend to soybeans subsequently sold by farmers to a grain elevator and later sold by the grain elevator to Bowman. The patent protection was exhausted in such a case, the lawyer said.

A federal judge disagreed and ordered Bowman to pay Monsanto $84,000 in damages. A federal appeals court upheld the award.

On Monday, the justices affirmed those decisions in a 9 to 0 vote.

Although the case raised the important issue of how patents protect a self-replicating product, the justices declined to issue a broader decision.

Instead, the court focused on the limited issue raised in the Bowman case.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the decision. She said that rather than creating a wholly new product, Bowman merely reproduced Monsanto’s patented invention. During every new planting, Bowman was profiting from the patented seeds without compensating the inventor, she said.

She rejected the argument that beans naturally reproduce and that the patent cannot extend through that reproduction process.

“Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium,” Kagan wrote. “But it was Bowman, and not the bean, who controlled the reproduction (unto the eighth generation) of Monsanto’s patented invention.”

Kagan emphasized that the decision was limited and could not be extended to every patent lawsuit concerning a self-replicating product.

“We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse,” she said. “In another case, the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose.”

“We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances,” Kagan wrote.

The case is Bowman v. Monsanto (11-796).

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Farmers cannot replicate Monsanto seeds for second crop, Supreme Court rules
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today