The battle against Monsanto Company is gaining new ground, as the Supreme Court announced Friday that it would take a suit against the agro-giant this winter. The court will review an appeal brought by Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman, who Monsanto claims infringed on its patent rights by reusing its herbicide-tolerant seeds. The landmark case could have enormous repercussions for GMO patent laws and big agribusiness–and possibly deal a huge blow to the chemical behemoth.
Bowman, a 74-year-old soybean farmer who bought cheap soybeans from a grain elevator from 1999 to 2007, challenged Monsanto’s licensing agreements on their genetically modified Roundup Ready seeds, which are resistant to the company’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers are legally contracted to buy a new crop of seeds every year—a practice that keeps Monsanto in business.
The case is moving up from the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals, which ruled against Bowman over a year ago. Monsanto won against the 74-year-old soybean farmer, who claimed as defense that the company had “exhausted” its patent rights when he bought the seed. Bowman was fined $84,456 in damages to Monsanto. While there are actually no restrictions on re-selling seeds to grain elevators as a commodity, it is forbidden to “create newly infringing genetic material, seeds and plants,” in the words of the Court of Appeals.
Bowman, unlike many of the small organic farmers resisting Monsanto’s GMO seed use, was actually using the Roundup technology. He bought second-generation grain elevator seeds for his second planting of the season. He then applied glyphosate, the potent chemical in Roundup, to his crops to see which seeds were still resistant to the herbicide. Then he saved these seeds for the next year, essentially circumventing Monsanto’s patent restrictions. Bowman claimed that Monsanto does not have rights over the seeds after they have been sold, and that he bought the Roundup Ready soybeans among an undifferentiated mix of other seeds.
Mark Walters, a lawyer for Bowman, told Reuters that the court’s decision conflicts with “over a century of Supreme Court law on patent exhaustion.”
Monsanto has carried out one of the most aggressive patent assertion campaigns in history, said Dan Ravicher, Executive Director of the Public Patent Foundation, in a press release. If the Supreme Court overturns the ruling, farmers will be able to buy second-generation seeds like these for a fraction of the price they pay for new seeds each year. And in a country where being a large-scale farmer is only getting more difficult and less lucrative, this could be a huge boon.
The seed and pesticide company, which made $13.5 billion last year in annual revenue, has a long history of dubious practices, which we’ve covered in depth. From Agent Orange to DDT to carcinogenic PCBs, Monsanto has been heralded as the evilest of evil corporations. With this upcoming case, the Supreme Court will have to weigh in on a farmer’s right to…well, plant.