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Indiana Farmer Loses U.S. Supreme Court Battle With Monsanto
May 14, 2013
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Bowman speaks to reporters outside the court on February 19 (Photo: AP)

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favour of agricultural giant Monsanto in its case against an Indiana farmer (you can check out the full decision here).

Vernon Hugh Bowman, 75, has used Monsanto's seeds for decades - regularly signing a contract with the company for his soybean crop.

Under the deal, Bowman promised not to save any seeds for replanting, meaning he would have to buy new seeds each year.

But Bowman argued he found a "loophole" in the contract.

He decided to buy cheaper seeds from another farmer's grain elevator - hoping that many of them contained Monsanto's patented 'Roundup Ready' gene.

Bowman replanted those seeds, grew plants, saved some of those seeds and replanted them as well.

Bowman argued he was legally allowed to grow those crops because of "patent exhaustion." In other words, there's a limit to how much control a company has over a patented product, once it's been sold to a customer.

Monsanto sued Bowman arguing it has the patent rights on the seeds, even after they're sold by a third party. So, the company argued, Bowman still had to pay Monsanto for the seeds.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, saying Bowman violated Monsanto's patent rights and had no right to replant the seeds without Monsanto's permission.

Soybean crops (Photo: AP)

A federal judge had already ordered Bowman to pay Monsanto $84,000 for copyright infringement, a decision the Supreme Court upheld, with Justice Elena Kagan suggesting he was "too clever for his own good," as The New York Times puts it.

Essentially, the court's decision boils down to this - if farmers are allowed to grow new crops without paying Mosanto for its patented seeds, the company will get "scant benefit" from its invention.

The ruling could have a major impact on the future of modern farming, as smaller farmers are increasingly at odds with big agricultural and biotech companies over control of the market, The Guardian reports.

The court's ruling, however, is explicitly limited to cases like Bowman's, in which an individual replicates a patented product. Justice Kagan said the court was not deciding how to handle other self-replicating products like software and patented DNA molecules.

Monsanto, of course, is pleased by the decision:

"The court's ruling today ensures that long-standing principles of patent law apply to breakthrough 21st century technologies," said David Snively, Monsanto's executive vice president and general counsel. "The ruling also provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to invest in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs and allows America to keep its competitive edge."

Some critics of the agriculture industry are disappointed in the ruling.

Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Centre for Food Safety in the U.S., called the decision a "disaster" for farmers and consumers because it will ensure Monsanto's soybean seed patent dominates the market, creating higher prices for farmers and consumers, NPR reports.

This is not the first time Monsanto has sued a farmer over the use of its products. Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto back in the late '90s over his use of patented canola seeds.

Schmeiser in New Delhi in 2007 (Photo: Getty)

In that case, Schmeiser said Monsanto seeds from a neighbouring farm accidentally mixed with his crop. He intentionally replanted seeds from those plants, claiming the seed was his because it was grown on his land.

Schmeiser became an international symbol for the movement against genetically engineered food products.

Canada's Supreme Court eventually ruled partly in favour of Monsanto, in a 5-4 vote, citing Schmeiser's intentional decision to replant the seed he had saved.

But no damages, costs, or legal fees were awarded to Monsanto, and the court ruled 9-0 in Schmeiser's favour on the question of whether he had made any more profits because of the presence of Monsanto's seeds.

In 2005, more of the seeds appeared in Schmeiser's fields. He sent Monsanto a bill for $660 in cleanup costs, eventually taking the matter to small claims court. In 2008, the company settled out of court, paying the full amount to Schmeiser.

Via The Guardian


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