Earlier this month, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Monsanto’s favor, stating that Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman committed patent infringement against the biotech company. The verdict found that farmers could not save GE seeds from a previous transaction for commercial use.
After planting genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybean seeds, whose modified traits are resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, Bowman subsequently bought soybeans from a grain elevator. Suspecting that the grain elevator soybeans were also GMOs, Bowman planted the soybeans, sprayed them with Roundup to confirm they did in fact have the glyphosate-resistant gene, and harvested several years of soybean crops.
Typically, grain elevators purchase seeds from nearby farmers, and sell them for consumption. Under federal and state law, they cannot package or market their grain for use as agricultural seed.
Monsanto discovered what Bowman was doing, and ordered a hefty $84,000 plus fine on the 75-year old farmer. That’s when the flurry of court cases started, culminating in a Supreme Court case.
Bowman’s main argument cited patent exhaustion—a doctrine suggesting he could do whatever he wanted with seeds he legally obtained. For example, if you buy an iPod, you can do with it what you want: you can use the iPod as intended, give it away, throw it in the ocean—it’s yours. You paid for it.
But soybeans are different than electronics: you can’t plant an iPod and grow more iPods. Indeed, Justice Kagan said patent exhaustion no longer applied after the first growing season. According to the Washington Post, “If someone is able to copy a patented product simply by planting it and collecting its progeny, ‘a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention,’ Kagan wrote. ‘And that would result in less incentive for innovation than Congress wanted.’”
Apart from the inherent nature of self-replicating seeds, Kagan continued, “it was Bowman, and not the bean, who controlled the reproduction (unto the eighth generation of Monsanto’s patented invention).”
Change the rhetoric
After mulling the decision over, I actually agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. When viewed solely as a product-consumer relationship, the ruling makes fine sense: Monsanto sold a product, and despite the license agreement Bowman signed that the seed was intended for only one season of planting, he cleverly found a way to use a product he had originally paid for.
In this case, Bowman was in the wrong (although I think the $84,000 fine is an absurd price for a family farmer to pay, regardless of the profit he gleaned from the soybeans.)
Sure, it’s upsetting that the Supreme Court sided with Monsanto, given the purported ties the company has with government officials. This case is one more tic we can add to a slew of relatively recent GMO-lenient legislation—the ruling bolsters rumors of federal biotech favoritism.
Respect the sacred seed
But I’m more upset about the verbiage all parties—Monsanto’s lawyers, Kagan, Bowman—used when referring to seeds. In the context of this case, seeds were referred to as a product, something akin to, well, an iPhone. I understand that seed production and selling is a business with great money to be made, but it seems we've forgotten that seeds are the foundation of human civilization. When it comes down to it, seeds are sacred.
I’m not a farmer. My livelihood does not depend on agriculture. So it’s easy for me to say this blasé statement. (Indeed, I can envision a hippie version of myself declaring this in a throaty voice, “We just gotta respect the seed, man.”) But when it comes down to it, there are a great many brilliant organic farmers and manufacturers who embody this every day. Until we adopt this frame of mind on a large scale, our food system will remain severely fractured.