High court hears Monsanto seed-patent case
Vernon Hugh Bowman seems comfortable with the old way of doing things, right down to the rotary-dial telephone he said he was using in a conference call with reporters.
But the 75-year-old Indiana farmer figured out a way to benefit from a high-technology product, soybeans that are resistant to weedkillers, without always paying the high price that such genetically engineered seeds typically bring. In so doing, he ignited a legal fight with seed-giant Monsanto Co. that has now come before the Supreme Court, with arguments taking place Tuesday.
The court case poses the question of whether Bowman's actions violated the patent rights held by Monsanto, which developed soybean and other seeds that survive when farmers spray their fields with the company's Roundup brand weedkiller. The seeds dominate American agriculture, including in Indiana, where more than 90 percent of soybeans are Roundup Ready.
Monsanto has attracted a bushel of researchers, universities and other agribusiness concerns to its side because they fear a decision in favor of Bowman would leave their own technological innovations open to poaching.
Monsanto's opponents argue that the company has tried to use patent law to control the supply of seeds for soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa.
Herbicide-resistant soybean seeds first hit the market in 1996. Monsanto has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown. Farmers must buy new seeds every year.
Bowman used the patented seeds for his main crop. But for a risky, late-season crop on his 300 acres in Sandborn, about 100 miles southwest of Indianapolis, Bowman said, "I wanted a cheap source of seed."
So Bowman found what looked like a loophole and went to a grain elevator that held soybeans it typically sells for feed, milling and other uses, but not as seed.
Bowman reasoned that most of those soybeans also would be resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. He was right, and he repeated the practice over eight years.
In October 2007, Monsanto sued him for violating its patent.
The Supreme Court will grapple with the limit of Monsanto's patent rights, whether they stop with the sale of the first crop of beans, or extend to each new crop soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weedkiller.
The company sees Bowman's actions as a threat both to its Roundup Ready line of seeds and to other innovations that could be easily and cheaply reproduced if they were not protected.