The Supreme Court announced last week that an Indiana farmer who was sued by Monsanto will get another day in court.
Vernon Hugh Bowman was forced to pay Monsanto $84,000 for planting seeds containing patented RoundUp Ready genes without paying technology fees to the chemical and seed giant. If the Supreme Court overturns this decision when it hears Bowman's appeal, its ruling could drastically change the biotech seed industry.
Bowman has been a loyal Monsanto customer when it came to the primary growing season. Each year, he purchased RoundUp Ready soybeans and paid the required technology fee for their use.
The trouble for the farmer came from his second planting of the season. According to Bowman, the second planting is always a gamble — so he opted for less expensive seeds from a local grain elevator, Huey Soil Service.
In Indiana and nationwide, 94% of soybeans planted contain patented RoundUp Ready genes. Huey Soil Service is no exception; they buy a mix of soybean seeds from farmers, including seeds with the glyphosate resistant trait. So when Bowman bought seeds from the grain elevator for his second planting, he ended up with a glyphosate-resistant crop — but he wasn't paying the technology fee to Monsanto.
Until the introduction of patented seed technology, seed-saving was a common-sense practice that reduced input costs for farmers. But now most farmers are buying new, expensive seeds each year.
The question in front of the Supreme Court is how far do those intellectual property rights extend? Once seeds are on the market, are farmers allowed to buy, sell and plant them without owing a debt to Monsanto?
So far, the courts have ruled in favor of Monsanto — using a legal doctrine of "conditional sale exemption" whereby patent holders can enforce their rights even after the initial sale of a product. But in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court called that doctrine into question in a case involving electronic patents.
If the Supreme Court chooses to limit (or eliminate) Monsanto's intellectual property claim on second-generation seeds, it could mean a much-needed shift of power in the seed market.