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Patents, Pesticides, Profits and Plants

February 21, 2013

My father is a lawyer. And I’m a Jew who occasionally studies Torah. So, while I may not be licensed to practice law anywhere in the world, or give legal advice, I think I can at least offer some compelling commentary on a case just recently presented to the Supreme Court.

Bowman v. Monsanto.

If you clicked on yesterday’s mystery link of the day, you already got the headline from The New York Times that read, “Supreme Court Appears to Defend Patent on Soybean”. They were also one of the few media outlets to write about a key detail in this case. A detail which makes the large corporate giant Monsanto seem less like a bad guy and more like a wronged party.

Yeah, given how much I dislike Monsanto, GMOs and suing farmers over saving seeds, I’m surprised to be writing that myself. However, it’s an important distinction to remember should Monsanto be victorious in this dispute.

I’m just pissed that it was this case involving GMOs that went before the Supreme Court.

Some farmers like GMO seeds. Some say they can no longer find enough non-GMO seeds to plant on all the acres of land. The later is another problem entirely, and let’s table that discussion for today (because I understand that it’s a related issue).

You know who liked GMO seeds? Vernon H. Bowman. He’s the farmer who is involved in this patent dispute with Monsanto.

My understanding is that when you buy GMO seeds from Monsanto, you sign a technology licensing agreement. And yes, it’s long. And yes, it’s restrictive. But it acknowledges the fact that the seeds are the intellectual property of Monsanto, and that effectively the farmer is buying a license to use them for the season.

GMO seeds are expensive. Especially considering you have to re-buy them every year.

So Mr. Bowman had a clever idea. He bought a whole bunch of seeds not from Monsanto, but in bulk from a grain elevator. His guess was that there would be some of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready soybean seeds in the lot, given their ubiquity.

This last part is actually the most troubling part of the story for me, and one that doesn’t seem to have received sufficient attention.

Okay. Mr. Bowman now has bulk seeds, purchased without a technology licensing agreement. He plants them. They grow. Then he sprays them all with Round-Up. In theory, this kills all plant life that doesn’t have the patented Monsanto gene sequence in its DNA.

These were the soybeans that Mr. Bowman was looking for. So he takes them, saves the seeds the plants naturally produce (complete with the Round-Up resistant gene), and is now able to plant Round-Up Ready soybeans for free.

Yeah. That sounds wrong to me.

Mostly because it was a matter of intent. He wanted to use this patented technology, but didn’t want to pay for it. He was keenly aware of what he was doing at every step in the process. And that was find some loophole where he could get Round-Up Ready soybeans without paying for Round-Up Ready soybeans.

Frankly, if you are an anti-GMO crusader, you should be rooting for Monsanto on this one, because a win for Monsanto keeps GMO seed expensive. Just imagine how many farmers would plant their fields with these crops if they could get the yields without the higher annual payments for seed.

Given the tight controls Monsanto has on their technology, I’m surprised the seeds made it to the grain elevator. The NYT reports that these seeds, “are typically sold for animal feed, food processing or industrial use.” Now I guess we are aware of another pathway GMOs can take into our food system. Ugh.

As far as I can tell this case was a lose-lose case for the anti-GMO crowd. If Bowman wins, GMO seeds become more widely planted and less well monitored, as disincentives to plant them are removed. If Monsanto wins it just means a tighter grip on their time tested claim that forms of life can be patented.

Plus the way the case is being presented in the media, Bowman isn’t a guy trying to pull one over on Monsanto, he’s just a simple farmer who was saving his seeds.

If a finding in favor of Monsanto encourages those engaged in the important act of saving seeds to close up shop, that could be a brutal blow to our nation’s food security down the road. It’s a dangerous path we’re going down to let a small handful of companies control our food.

Feeling discouraged? Me too.

The only way to counter this is to push for mandatory GMO labeling. Only once people are informed about what’s in their food, will they consider alternatives. Sure, some people won’t mind. But even small changes in consumer behavior can have large repercussions on business. It’s amazing how that works.

So click here dammit and read up on how to help.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2013 11:28 am

    I guess this means I should throw out my sourdough starter purloined from the Cheese Board, yes? (that is a question)

  2. February 21, 2013 1:18 pm

    I disagree. I don’t think seeds should be patented, because it leads to concentration in the seed industry, and facilitates the growth of near-monopolies by agrichemical/biotech companies like Monsanto. And, frankly, genetic diversity (and economic diversity) in agriculture is just way too important to society to sacrifice in this way. I don’t like GMO seeds, but that’s sort of irrelevant to what I think is important here. Up until the last few decades, most seeds were developed at universities with public dollars, and then allowed to be replicated by farmers as they wished, because it was in the public interest. I think that’s a pretty good system. It wasn’t perfect–university researchers tended to support industrialized, chemical agriculture–but it was a lot better for small farmers, and for genetic diversity.

  3. February 21, 2013 4:15 pm

    One of the biggest issues with patented seeds (aside from the genetic manipulation) that was presented in “Food, Inc.”, if I recall correctly, was the fact that they blow into the fields of other farmers, who are then liable for their “violation” of the patent. I’m not an attorney, but to this layman that seems like a much more productive issue to use in a patent challenge – the fact that your crops might contain the patented genetic material even if you didn’t intend them to.

  4. March 8, 2013 6:06 pm

    Well, if the government won’t mandate labeling, Whole Foods will. This should make an impact:

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