Whose food system? Court sides with Monsanto. | Pesticide Action Network
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Whose food system? Court sides with Monsanto.

Linda Wells's picture

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the much anticipated Monsanto v. Bowman case, addressing whether the corporation's patent protections extend past the initial sale and use of their RoundUp-Ready seeds. Unfortunately the justices landed on the side of Monsanto, reaffirming the stranglehold corporations have on seeds — and our food system.

I had hoped the Supreme Court might finally draw a line in the sand, placing a limitation on Monsanto's long string of successful legal suits against farmers. But, following the trend, the justices sided with Monsanto and upheld the $84,456 judgement against farmer Vernon Bowman.

Bowman's crime? The farmer bought seeds from his local co-op and continued to grow and save those seeds even after he discovered they were glyphosate-resistant.

On Monday, the Court ruled that Monsanto's seeds continue to be patent protected even in their second and third generations in the field, and even if the person planting them hasn't bought them knowingly or signed a technology agreement.

Seeds copy themselves

The Court's holding included a complicated standard for seed patents:

.. the authorized sale of a patented article gives the purchaser, or any subsequent owner, a right to use or resell that article. Such a sale, however, does not allow the purchaser to make new copies of the patented invention.

This standard makes sense for a copyrighted DVD - watch it, resell it, just don't burn it onto your laptop and make ten copies of it. The problem with this standard for seeds is that seeds reproduce themselves with every use. That's how seeds work. This standard makes it nearly impossible for farmers to buy cheap soybean seeds that they can use, save, and use again.

The soybean market is dominated by RoundUp Ready. In Indiana, where Bowman bought his second-hand seeds, 94% of soybeans grown contain the glyphosate-resistant gene. So the options are highly limited for farmers who want to buy seeds that they can save from year to year.  Buying generic seeds at the local farmers co-op used to be a good option, but this decision from the Supreme Court essentially eliminates that option.

Whose food system?

That said, Monsanto v. Bowman is not a game changer. It's an affirmation of the current balance of power, in which Monsanto, Dupont, and the other agribusiness giants have a secure stranglehold on the seed market. The Big 6 plans to continue fighting for an ever-larger share of the seed market and to continue producing ever-more-expensive seed technologies.

We need more off-ramps for farmers who decide that seed saving and agroecology are a better strategy than paying an ever-higher premium for seeds they can't reuse. How do we transition towards a global food system that prioritizes small farmers and local consumers instead of big agribusiness and that misleading "feed-the-world" philosophy?

It's a good week to sing the praises of our diligent agroecologists and small seed production companies, who are researching and supplying farming solutions designed for local communities around the world.

Linda Wells
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dgregory's picture
dgregory /
<p>I'm not clear on a few things:</p> <p>1. Bowman bought seeds from the co-op: Did he know then that they carried the gene? If so, perhaps he should pay; if not, he shouldn't. &nbsp;But he continued to grow and save them knowing they had the gene; so given what we know of the law, he is guilty.</p> <p>2. Stepping back: did the co-op know the gene was in the mix? They should assume so; therefore, perhaps the co-op should pay the licensing fee. &nbsp;If the co-op pays, then they'll pass on the cost to the farmer anyway, and/or take it out of the price they pay for the seed they buy from farmers (if not certified x-gene free).&nbsp;</p> <p>They shouldn't _all_have to pay, that's like double-(triple) taxation.</p> <p>If the costs feed back to the farmer selling selling seed, then there is an incentive for a x-gene free supply chain. &nbsp;Then, the only question becomes, if you plant x-gene free seeds, and your crop comes in polluted with the gene, who pays for polluting your gene bank? &nbsp;Seems easy: Those who created the gene and didn't keep it from spreading...!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
lrb945's picture
lrb945 /
<p>the Supreme Court's entire purpose is to interpret the laws that are already in force, period. &nbsp;the loud message they are continuing to send is that they can do nothing until the current laws are changed. &nbsp;there, of course, is the rub. &nbsp;congress has to do it. &nbsp;kind of like congress has to pass term limits on themselves, or reduce their own income or take away their preferential treatment. &nbsp;sure. that'll happen.</p>
shirty's picture
shirty /
<p>It seems like the more correct information we get out there, the better.&nbsp; The bigger issue of being able to tell whether one is buying genetically modified seeds remains.&nbsp; Further, in this matter, remaining ignorant can cause huge problems.&nbsp; Science teachers in the public schools need to help spread the word.</p> <p>Also, domination of the seed market is a major issue for consumers. It's our food supply! Let our local representatives know our desires becomes more important.&nbsp; Becoming involved can pay off in larger terms, especially with Congress being so reactionary.</p>
Linda Wells's picture

Linda Wells is PAN's Associate Director of Organizing. Follow @LindaatPAN