U.S. ag wary as Monsanto heads to Supreme Court
A 75-year-old Indiana grain farmer will take on global seed giant Monsanto Company at the U.S. Supreme Court next week in a patent battle that could have ramifications for the biotechnology industry and possibly the future of food production.
The highest court in the United States will hear arguments on Tuesday in the dispute, which started when soybean farmer Vernon Bowman bought and planted a mix of unmarked grain typically used for animal feed. The plants that grew turned out to contain the popular herbicide-resistant genetic trait known as Roundup Ready that Monsanto guards closely with patents.
The St. Louis, Mo.-based biotech giant accused Bowman of infringing its patents by growing plants that contained its genetics. But Bowman, who grows wheat and corn along with soybeans on about 300 acres inherited from his father, argued that he used second-generation grain and not the original seeds covered by Monsanto's patents.
A central issue for the court is the extent that a patent holder, or the developer of a genetically modified seed, can control its use through multiple generations of seed.
The Supreme Court's decision to hear the dispute has sparked broad concerns in the biotech industry as a range of companies fear it will result in limits placed on their own patents of self-replicating technologies.
At the same time, many farmer groups and biotech crop critics hope the Supreme Court might curb what they say is a patent system that gives too much power to biotech seed companies like Monsanto.
"I think the case has enormous implications," said Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University agribusiness and economics professor who believes Monsanto should prevail. "If Monsanto were to lose, many companies would have a reduced incentive for research in an area where we really need it right now. The world needs more food."
The court battle has ballooned into a show-down that merges contentious matters of patent law with an ongoing national debate about the merits and pitfalls of genetically altered crops and efforts to increase food production.
More than 50 organizations - from environmental groups to intellectual property experts - as well as the U.S. government, have filed legal briefs hoping to sway the high court.
Companies developing patented cell lines and tools of molecular biotechnology could lose their ability to capture the ongoing value of these technologies if the Supreme Court sides with Bowman, said Hans Sauer, deputy general counsel for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.