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.

By Aimee Picchi May 14, 2013 12:06PM

Soybean seeds sit in a tray after being run through a chipping machine, which takes a small sample of the seed for testing, inside a Monsanto Co. lab in St. Louis, Missouri on April 15, 2010 (© Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)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."

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May 14, 2013 12:40PM
The end game is to put organic farmers and natural heirloom companies that get in their way out of business, make it illegal to homestead, plant and grow non-government certified seeds and plants or to even market or challenge Monsanto, squeezing out any competition through the corrupt and culpable powers of government making them a monopoly on food production. This is something right out George Orwell's '1984' or Aynd Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged'. The whole system is Kleptocratic, it's disgusting.
May 14, 2013 12:45PM

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.

Most ridiculous.

May 14, 2013 3:38PM
If we eat foods produced with Monsanto seeds, is our crap patented?
May 14, 2013 2:54PM
Monsanto is a monster who has a track record of  devastating  lives through poverty, disease, and death in several countries. They stand for insatiable greed and power at any expense. Their sophistication at manipulation will one day have us jumping and jerking on a string like puppets, partially from their monumental lobbying efforts but more so from the GMO food they serve up. Their goal: To control the world's food supply.
May 14, 2013 2:03PM

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.

May 14, 2013 1:38PM
When you put people on government welfare, as agriculture is, they then believe they are entitled to everyone else's property, creativity and work.
May 14, 2013 3:42PM
Shouldn't have signed the contract I guess.  But it is a bunch of BS.. if you buy a bag of seeds, it's now your property.  You grow it on your land, the crop is yours to do with what you want.
May 14, 2013 1:02PM

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?

May 14, 2013 1:21PM
What if I go for genetic baby with DNA altering?  Can my baby reproduce?  or is it America is the country of the sue
May 14, 2013 2:05PM
When genetically altered cotton began in Arizona we went from 13 to 15 aerial applications of insecticides to one for white fly and two more to defoliate. What was amazing were the birds that came back into the cotton fields over the next 5 years. The environment completely changed. Why the environmentalist have never talked about this tells me environmentalists only want to see life though their own rose colored glasses and attack all technical progress.
May 14, 2013 2:52PM
The writer of the article fails to tell the entire story.  Monstanto developed, out of their own money, the soybeans which were resistant to Roundup.  Bowman, the supposedly innocent farmer, bought seeds which were NOT mixed with other seeds he bought seeds which were the ones with the patent.  He could have bought seeds which were not patented. The Monsanto variety was NOT his only choice.  He took the seeds, planted them, and to ensure that only these seeds survived, he administered the herbicide.  He was left with only seeds which had the patent.  He then used these seeds to replant a second harvest in violation of his agreement NOT to use the seeds for reseeding.  He did this to reduce his cost so he wouldn't have to buy more seeds.  
Now, if he wanted to be the "traditional farmer" with traditional American values, he could have bought the other seeds. No, he wanted the benefits from Monsanto but not pay the price. He is a free-rider.  It is no different than stealing music that is protected, or buying a farm and expecting that the seller stops growing crops on what is now yours.
May 14, 2013 4:32PM
The real issue is not money, but rather the safety of GMO's.  Who cares if theses types of foods have 200 times the amount of arsenic in them as per water supply regulations for major cities.  I guess in time it may be an economic stimulus for doctors however.
May 14, 2013 6:11PM
If you watch documentaries about world wide farming,(the last one in India) Monsanto is busy driving those small subsistence farmers into suicide and starvation.
May 15, 2013 11:40AM
monsantos gmo foods cause cancer in lab rats, sterilization and a plethora of other health issues, if it does that to rats think what it does to humans, look at what corporate farms do to milk, 11 yr old girls growing breast because of the hormones they inject into the cows, young boys hitting puberty earlier, medications and steroids in the meats, yup Monsanto is our friend, my patootie, people ought to run them out on a rail.
May 14, 2013 12:47PM
"America's centuries-old farming traditions" didn't include genetically modified seeds.  I see nothing in the Supreme Court's decision that prohibits Bowman from using any soybean seeds that he wants - except for Monsanto's genetically altered seeds.

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.
May 15, 2013 12:32PM
ALL GMO foods are doused/laced with Roundup.

Roundup is extremely poisonous and detrimental to human health.

A proven hormone disruptor, fertility killer, and carcinogenic cancer causer.

May 15, 2013 12:30PM
GMO lays the seeds for cancer in your body, every day that you eat it.

And yes, you eat GMO daily.

May 14, 2013 2:52PM
Factory farms are the design of the future...too bad. There must be some way not to use Monsanto's seeds, or at least, let Monsanto be responsible for getting there own seeds back. Any body?
May 15, 2013 12:29PM
Ms. Picchi, is this a news article or an op-ed piece? Adding interest to your writing by using tongue-in-cheek humor is one thing, but to use that stylistic technique to blatantly support one side of a controversial argument is just irresponsible journalism. This cheerleading does nothing to promote the facts or educate the reader. I was hoping to actually learn something from clicking on this link. Unfortunately, because your article is so extremely biased, I realize that it is completely unreliable - one way or another. Remember, as a writer, it's actually more difficult to craft an honest news story which precludes any allusion to the author's own sentiments than it is to simply snicker from a pre-determined point-of-view. An accurate analysis requires a fair presentation of the complexity of the issue. Even in expository writing, the old adage of "show, don't tell" applies. Get your game face on and do it right!
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