Big Ag Wins This Round: Supreme Court Backs Monsanto in Ruling

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Indiana soy farmer's argument against the agricultural giant.

Photo Credit: sima

On Monday the Supreme Court sided with Monsanto in a legal dispute against an Indiana soybean farmer. 

Seventy-five-year-old Vernon Hugh Bowman, who inherited his farm from his father, argued that his use of second-generation seeds did not violate Monsanto’s patent. Bowman’s supporters had hoped the Supreme Court would use the case as an opportunity to mitigate corporate control of agribusiness.

Instead, the court sided with Monsanto on Monday, stating that the planting of Monsanto’s pesticide-resistant “Roundup Ready,” genetically modified soybeans violated the company's patent. 

Bowman’s defense had been that he did not violate the patent because Monsanto’s pesticide-resistant soybeans replicate themselves, and that he had used a second-generation variety of the soybeans. In an unusual planting tactic, he purchased the grain from the local grain elevator, which is usually used for feed, and planted it. 

As a Washington Post article pointed out prior to the ruling, the big question was: “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?”

Monsanto warned the court in its brief that an adverse ruling, “would devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high research and development costs.”

The court unanimously rejected Bowman’s argument, and Justice Elena Kagan said there is no such thing as a “seeds-are-special” exception to the law. She added that Bowman was not just a passive observer of his soybean crop.

“Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium,” she told the court.

The justices also said they thought Bowman’s practices posed a threat to the incentive for invention, around which patent law revolves. The court ordered Bowman to pay nearly $85,000 in damages to Monsanto.

The Supreme Court's decision implies that Monsanto has the legal right to stop farmers from saving seeds from patented genetically modified crops one season, and plant them the next season.

Justice Kagan insisted that the unanimous ruling only concerned the case at hand, “rather than every one involving a self-replicating product."

As AlterNet’s Jill Richardson explained in February, however, Bowman vs. Monsanto could be considered a major win for corporate food producers in the long run. 

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.