Monsanto's win is a loss for American farmers
The Supreme Court's ruling on genetically modified seed undercuts growers' historic reliance on frugality and independence.
Score one for Monsanto (MON), and score none for America's centuries-old farming traditions.
The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling on Monday that farmers can't create new seeds from plants grown with Monsanto's patented and genetically altered soybean seeds (pictured) strikes a blow against a tradition of seed saving, a technique that has basically allowed humanity to create an agricultural society.
The case will surely have implications for businesses based on innovations in fields as wide ranging as software and vaccines, as The New York Times points out.
Yet the people who are most likely to feel the impact first are other farmers, many of whom practice the age-old technique of seed saving.
First, let's take a look at the actions of the farmer in the case. Vernon Hugh Bowman, from Indiana, had signed contracts with Monsanto promising not to save seeds from a crop grown with its patented seeds.
But he found what he thought was a loophole. Bowman bought a mixture of seeds from a grain elevator, hoping they included some of the patented seed, which grows a crop that's invulnerable to Roundup, Monsanto's weed killer.
The second crop did indeed grow some Roundup-resistant soybeans, and Bowman saved seeds from those plants. While some people might say Bowman cleverly bred and grew his own Roundup-resistant crop and is entitled to reap the rewards of his work, the Supreme Court didn't agree.
Allowing Bowman to continue with the practice would have destroyed Monsanto's patent, wrote Justice Elena Kagan, according to the Times. Bowman had argued that he was allowed to do what he liked because of a doctrine called patent exhaustion, but Kagan said it didn't apply to his methods.
She added that the farmer was responsible, because his methods controlled the seeds' reproduction. Um, well, yes. After all, that technique is essentially the basis of agriculture.
Farmers -- and suburban and urban gardeners -- historically have carefully harvested and saved seeds for the next growing season, a technique that's not only frugal but has led to hardier plants and new varieties. Until big corporations started patenting seeds, agriculture was based on what you could think of as "open source" farming.
But corporations are increasingly getting in on the seed game, hoping to own the rights to a particular plant. J.R. Simplot, the potato processing giant, is working on a genetically modified potato that resists bruising, according to The Associated Press, while the Center for Food Safety says 10 companies control 65% of seeds protected as intellectual property.
Still, the Supreme Court ruling is sending shock waves through the farming community.
"We are always disappointed when the biotech industry strikes out against any farmer that is trying to save seeds," Heather Spaulding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association told the Portland Press Herald. "It is really difficult for us to understand how the biotech industry can justify laying claims to life forms through patents."
It seems to me that awarding patents for life forms is just inherently wrong, especially when those life forms can fertilize and/or be fertilized by other life forms to reproduce offspring. Where does one draw the line for the patent? If a Monsanto-created gene ends up in another soybean that was the "offspring" created by cross-fertilization with a non-Monsanto created soybean, does Monsanto's patent apply to this new bean?
A farmer who chooses not to use Monsanto seeds could still be sued by Monsanto if a nearby farm's pollen went and fertilized his/her crop.
So don't buy those seeds, there are plenty of competitors. And all they seem to provide is resistance to a herbicide, which also has alternatives and competitors. Most seeds are not genetically altered (beyond the normal selective breeding techniques) so there are alternatives.
Also, if he signed a contract then a deal's a deal. He should have honored it regardless.
The Monsanto patent on their soybean seed expires next year.
Next year Monsanto will introduce a new, second generation of patented soybean seed. As with today's Version One seed, the retail cost for Version Two will be at least double that of traditional, non-Roundup-resistant seed.
Can the superiority of Version Two seed in comparison to Version One seed be so great that there's no advantage to many farmers next year using seeds from their Version One plants, or from purchase of newly generic (and generically priced) Version One seed?
Or is it possible that beginning next year Monsanto will alter the composition of Roundup so that it destroys Version One soybeans?
Monsanto put the time and money into developing the round-resistant soybeans. The benefit to the farmer is more production and lower fuel use because the beans don't require cultivation. Bowman obviously wanted the benefits, but didn't want to pay for them.
Bowman was free to use other beans, but as the author observed, "he thought he found a loophole" enabling him to reap the rewards of Monsanto's research and development costs for free.
The Supreme Court reached the right decision.
Roundup is extremely poisonous and detrimental to human health.
A proven hormone disruptor, fertility killer, and carcinogenic cancer causer.
And yes, you eat GMO daily.
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