U.S. ag wary as Monsanto heads to Supreme Court
The soybean crop turned out so good that Bowman saved some of the seed generated by the plants and sowed them the following year for another late crop. He repeated the process year after year, sometimes supplementing his second planting with more commodity grain he used as seed. All the while he continued to buy first-generation seed each year for his main crop of beans. For those purchases, he signed required "technology agreements" pledging not to save the offspring of those seeds.
Monsanto began investigating Bowman's planting activities in 2006 and asserted that even though he was not saving seed from the progeny of the first-generation seeds he bought, his use of commodity grain and the progeny was a patent violation.
Bowman argued that Monsanto's rights to the seeds he purchased from the grain elevator were exhausted because they were not the first generation seeds other farmers had purchased and planted, but rather a mix of later generation progeny.
"It didn't occur to my mind that this would be a problem," said Bowman, who doesn't have a computer at home so he goes to the library to read about his case on the Internet. "Farmers have always been allowed to go buy elevator grain and use for seed. You have no idea what kind of seed you're buying at an elevator. They claim I'm making a new seed by planting it. But that's far-fetched reasoning."
Bowman said he just wanted cheaper seeds. His legal brief states the technology fees for Roundup Ready soybeans have risen to $17.50 per bag by 2009 from about $4.50 in 1996.
Big Stakes for Both Sides
A lower court ruled in favor of Monsanto, and in May 2010 it ordered Bowman to pay the company $84,456. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with Monsanto in September 2011.
The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case has raised the hopes of those backing Bowman.
In one of a dozen briefs filed in his support, farmer, environmental and food safety groups claim the courts have carved out an exception to existing patent law that gives biotech companies too much control. They want the Supreme Court to broaden farmers' abilities to use seed, not restrict them.
"Through a patenting system that favors the rights of corporations over the rights of farmers and citizens, our food and farming system is being held hostage by a handful of companies," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, one of the groups supporting Bowman. "Nothing less than the future of food is at stake."