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.