Indiana soybean farmer, Hugh Bowman, is taking his one-man-war against agriculture giant Monsanto to the Supreme Court on Tuesday where both sides will present their arguments (.pdf) to the high court. The suit calls into question essential patent rights and, more importantly, challenges whether anyone can legally "control a product of life."
A Monsanto customer for years, 75-year-old Bowman devotedly bought and planted their genetically modified (gm) 'Roundup Ready' soybean seeds each year. He crossed the corporation in 2007 when they accused Bowman of infringing on their seed patents after he planted an unmarked mix of soybeans which he purchased from a local grain elevator that supposedly contained the Monsanto gene.
After being ordered to pay $84,000, Bowman is appealing the charge and bringing his case to the high court where he will present before the chief justices, including former Monsanto attorney Justice Clarence Thomas.
"Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. will be decided based on the court's interpretation of a complex web of seed and plant patent law," writes Debbie Barker, Program Director for Save Our Seeds (SOS), and George Kimbrell, staff attorney for Center for Food Safety (CFS), in an op-ed published Tuesday, "but the case also reflects something much more basic: Should anyone, or any corporation, control a product of life?"
[Monsanto's] logic is troubling to many who point out that it is the nature of seeds and all living things, whether patented or not, to replicate. Monsanto's claim that it has rights over a self-replicating natural product should raise concern. Seeds, unlike computer chips, for example, are essential to life. If people are denied a computer chip, they don't go hungry. If people are denied seeds, the potential consequences are much more threatening.
The case has garnered national attention as it touches upon an essential debate between corporate ownership versus essential rights and sustainability.
In a supporting brief filed by the sustainable food advocacy group, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), they argue that intellectual property rules have spurred the privatization and concentration of the world’s seed supply with only ten companies controlling nearly two-thirds of all commercial seed for major crops, effectively driving up prices and dangerously limiting the variety of seeds planted.
Bowman's pro-bono representation Mark Walters, from the firm of Frommer Lawrence and Haug, is reportedly prepared to argue on the principle on "patent exhaustion" that the second-hand seeds are lawfully owned by the purchaser, not by the original patent holder.
As Walters explained to NPR, if you buy something that's covered by a patent, you own it, outright. "You're allowed to put it on Craigslist and sell it, you're allowed to use it for your 'ordinary pursuits of life' is the quote from some of the old cases that we're relying on. Imagine how commerce would work if patents owners could come out of nowhere and surprise purchasers and tell them, 'Oh, you need to pay me a royalty, because I own a patent on this thing that you just bought.'"
The ramifications of this argument are widespread, as evidenced by the numerous other industries which have come to Monsanto's defense including the biotech and computer software industries.
According to the Indiana Star, the Department of Justice is also siding with the corporate patent holders, reportedly asking the Supreme Court not to hear Bowman's appeal on the basis that "the court’s decision could have repercussions for man-made cell lines, DNA molecules, some nanotechnologies and other technologies that involve self-replicating features."
Ahead of Tuesday's hearing, CFS and SOS issued a report, "Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers," (.pdf) which examines how the "current seed patent regime has led to a radical shift to consolidation and control of global seed supply and how these patents have abetted corporations, such as Monsanto, to sue U.S. farmers for alleged seed patent infringement."
Some of the reports findings include:
- As of January 2013, Monsanto, alleging seed patent infringement, had filed 144 lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in at least 27 different states.
- Today, three corporations control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market.
- Seed consolidation has led to market control resulting in dramatic increases in the price of seeds. From 1995-2011, the average cost to plant one acre of soybeans has risen 325 percent; for cotton prices spiked 516 percent and corn seed prices are up by 259 percent.
“Corporations did not create seeds," said the reports lead author Debbie Barker, adding that their assertion of seed patents threatens a resource "that is vital to survival, and that, historically, has been in the public domain.”