[Marxism] Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 10 07:44:57 MST 2013
My review of a documentary that deals with the issues in the article
Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case
By Robert Barnes, Published: February 9
In SANDBORN, Ind. — Farmer Hugh Bowman hardly looks the part of a
revolutionary who stands in the way of promising new biotech discoveries
and threatens Monsanto’s pursuit of new products it says will “feed the
“Hell’s fire,” said the 75-year-old self-described “eccentric old
bachelor,” who farms 300 acres of land passed down from his father.
Bowman rested in a recliner, boots off, the tag that once held his
Foster Grant reading glasses to a drugstore rack still attached, a
Monsanto gimme cap perched ironically on his balding head.
“I am less than a drop in the bucket.”
Yet Bowman’s unorthodox soybean farming techniques have landed him at
the center of a national battle over genetically modified crops. His
legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether
the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how
companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments.
What Bowman did was to take commodity grain from the local elevator,
which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly
progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most
Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to
survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s
planting violated the company’s restrictions.
Those supporting Bowman hope the court uses the case, which is scheduled
for oral arguments later this month, to hit the reset button on
corporate domination of agribusiness and what they call Monsanto’s
“legal assault” on farmers who don’t toe the line. Monsanto’s supporters
say advances in health and environmental research are endangered.
And the case raises questions about the traditional role of farmers.
For instance: When a farmer grows Monsanto’s genetically modified
soybean seeds, has he simply “used” the seed to create a crop to sell,
or has he “made” untold replicas of Monsanto’s invention that remain
subject to the company’s restrictions?
An adverse ruling, Monsanto warned the court in its brief, “would
devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high
research and development costs.”
“Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent
purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using
them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto states.
Bowman said Monsanto’s claim that its patent protection would be
eviscerated should he win is “ridiculous.”
“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and
millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers
into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,”
His squat white farmhouse on the outskirts of his down-at-the-heels home
town is now filled with stacks of documents. There are legal procedure
books under the living room end table and a copier in the bedroom that
regularly churns out Bowman’s six-page statement of events.
The journey from Sandborn to the Supreme Court is a trip through modern
American agribusiness and patent law, an increasing part of the court’s
docket but a complex area of law that even the justices approach with
At issue is Monsanto’s ubiquitous weedkiller, Roundup, which has
revolutionized American farming. “Weeds are the most significant
economic challenge to global food production,” says a brief by the
American Soybean Association, which supports Monsanto in the case.
They compete with crops for water, nutrients and light, and Roundup has
been especially effective in combating them. The herbicide’s active
ingredient, glyphosate, kills almost everything — including conventional
So Monsanto in 1996 offered a genetically modified soybean that was
resistent to glyphosate, and despite alarm from some who oppose such
engineering, it has been wildly successful. Through Monsanto’s own seeds
and by its licensing of the technology to other seed producers, a little
more than a decade later more than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in
the United States were Roundup Ready.
Farmers who buy seeds with the Roundup Ready trait sign an agreement
that says they may be used for one planting only. Even though the gene
exists in the new beans they grow, farmers cannot save them for a second
planting, nor sell them to others for that purpose.
But they are allowed to sell the beans to giant grain elevators, like
those that are the most prominent feature on the flat landscape in
Bowman’s corner of southern Indiana.
From 1999 to 2007, Bowman purchased Roundup Ready seeds for his first
planting of soybeans and abided by Monsanto’s restrictions. But like
some farmers, he also plants a second crop later in the growing season;
such crops are highly dependent on the weather, which makes them more
It is too risky to pay the high price of Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant
seeds for the second crop of the season, Bowman said, so instead he
purchased cheaper commodity grain from the local elevator, which is
usually used for feed. He planted it, and when he sprayed the crop with
the herbicide, almost all survived. That wasn’t surprising, because 94
percent of Indiana soybean farmers grow Roundup Ready beans.
Bowman told Monsanto exactly what he was doing, and Monsanto told him to
The farmer was in effect “soybean laundering,” according to some of the
companies supporting Monsanto at the Supreme Court — selling Roundup
Ready progeny beans to the grain elevator and hoping other farmers were
too, then buying them back and planting them.
The company sued when Bowman ignored its warnings, winning a judgment of
Bowman argued that under long-standing legal precedent, Monsanto’s
patent claims ended — were “exhausted” is the legal term — once Bowman
purchased the Roundup Ready seed.
But the specialized court that hears patent cases, the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Federal Circuit, disagreed and said Monsanto could put
restrictions on farmers’ use of progeny beans.
Moreover, the judges said that even if Monsanto’s patent was exhausted
by the original sale, Bowman was creating copies of the company’s
“While farmers, like Bowman, may have the right to use commodity seeds
as feed . . . they cannot ‘replicate’ Monsanto’s patented technology by
planting it in the ground to create newly infringing genetic material,
seeds, and plants,” the court ruled.
It was one in a string of victories for Monsanto at the Federal Circuit.
But the Supreme Court in recent years has taken a much more aggressive
stance in reviewing the lower court’s patent rulings. Even though the
Obama administration, at the justices’ invitation, said the ruling
should be affirmed, the court accepted Bowman’s appeal.
Those worried about genetically modified crops — now dominant in corn,
sugar beet and canola production as well as soybeans — say Bowman’s case
presents a “microcosm” of the state of American agribusiness, where
corporations dominate and bully farmers through lawsuits.
“The current intellectual property environment of transgenic crops has
spurred the privatization and concentration of the world’s seed supply,”
said a brief filed by the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds,
groups that have been highly critical of Monsanto and genetically
modified crops. “Market concentration has resulted in 10 multinational
corporations holding approximately two-thirds (65%) of commercial seed
for major crops, reducing choice and innovation, and increasing prices
for the American farmer.”
The brief asks the court to end the practice of allowing corporations to
place conditions on the sale of its seed and to reject an “end-run
around patent exhaustion” for regeneration. “Farming is using seeds, not
constructing or manufacturing seeds,” the brief states.
Monsanto, alarmed at the possibilities of what the Supreme Court might
do, has circled the wagons.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization warns that advancements in
agricultural, medical and environmental research “depend critically on a
strong, stable and nationally uniform system of patent rights and
Universities, economists, intellectual property experts and seed
companies have weighed in on Monsanto’s behalf.
Bowman originally represented himself, with the help of a local
attorney, in the legal proceedings. But now Seattle lawyer Mark P.
Walters and his intellectual property law firm are working pro bono on
Walters calls Monsanto’s dire claims “really such an exaggeration.”
Monsanto can protect itself through contracts, for instance, requiring
grain elevators to impose restrictions against planting commodity seed.
The company could even ensure that its Roundup resistance does not pass
on to the next generation of soybeans, ensuring that farmers would have
to buy, rather than save, seed.
Monsanto rejects those alternatives as unworkable.
Bowman, meanwhile, denies that he has found an ingenious loophole around
“I see no threat in what I’ve done,” he said. “If there was, there’d
surely be a hell of a lot of other farmers doing it.” Instead, he said,
“as far as I know, I’m the only damn dumb farmer around” that tried.
The case is Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto .
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