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Ear to the Ground

Soybean Farmer Takes Monsanto to Supreme Court

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Posted on Feb 9, 2013
jster91 (CC BY 2.0)

Soybean crops.

A single 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer in rural southwestern Indiana is taking on the multibillion dollar agricultural giant Monsanto over the issue of who controls the rights to seeds planted in the ground.

When confronted with the David vs. Goliath nature of his battle, Vernon Hugh Bowman told The Guardian: “I really don’t consider it as David and Goliath. I don’t think of it in those terms. I think of it in terms of right and wrong.”

In the next few weeks, legal teams representing Bowman and Monsanto will face off in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The dispute pertains to Monsanto’s “aggressive protection” of a proprietary soybean it calls Roundup Ready. The bean has been genetically engineered to resist its Roundup herbicide and the product’s generic equivalents.

The company maintains that when farmers like Bowman plant Monsanto’s seeds, they are obligated to harvest only the resulting crop and not use any of it for planting the following year. The arrangement means that farmers have to buy new Monsanto seeds each year.

“[D]espite the vast sums of money involved in modern farming, it is ironically Bowman’s own lack of cash that has seen the case end up at the supreme court,” Paul Harris reports at The Guardian. “Monsanto has a long record of reaching settlements with commercially pressured farmers it targets for patent infringements. But when the firm sued Bowman, he was already bankrupt after an unrelated land deal went wrong. Thus, he had little to lose. ‘I made up my mind to fight it until I could not fight it anymore,’ he said. ‘I thought: I am not going to play dead.’ ”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

The Guardian:

[F]armers are able to buy excess soybeans from local grain elevators, many of which are likely to be Roundup Ready due to the huge dominance Monsanto has in the market. Indeed in Indiana it is believed more than 90% of soybeans for sale as “commodity seeds” could be such beans, each containing the genes Monsanto developed.

Bowman, who has farmed the same stretch of land for most of the past four decades and grew up on a farm, ended up on Monsanto’s radar for using such seeds – bought from a local grain elevator, rather than Monsanto – for year after year and replanting part of each crop. He did not do so for his main crop of soybeans, but rather for a smaller “second late season planting” usually planted on a field that had just been harvested for wheat. “We have always had the right to go to an elevator, buy some ‘junk grain’ and use it for seed if you desire,” Bowman said.

To put it mildly, Monsanto disagrees. The firm insists that it maintains patent rights on its genetically modified seeds even if sold by a third party with no restrictions put on its use – even if the seeds are actually only descendants of the original Monsanto seeds. To that end it sued Bowman, eventually winning a legal settlement of some $84,456 (£53,500) against him for infringing the firm’s patent rights. Monsanto says that if it allowed Bowman to keep replanting his seeds it would undermine its business model, endangering the expensive research that it uses to produce advanced agricultural products.

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