Supreme Court hands Monsanto the farm

  • Published on May 13th, 2013

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In a huge disappointment to organic food and non-GMO activists, the Supreme Court gave Monsanto a huge victory this morning.

Monsanto: I am not a science experimentThere had been some hope that they would re-evaluate the crazy notion that companies can patent life-forms. It is, after all, an idea that would have been laughed at by the founding fathers of this country.

But while the current Justices may give lip service to following the original intent of the law, anyone who’s been watching knows that their main loyalty is to keeping the market ripe for corporate profits.

The court ruled unanimously – the liberals joining with the “original intentist” conservatives. Even Clarence Thomas, a former Monsanto employee, joined the cheerleading. And they ruled that Monsanto can has the right to control it’s designer genes down through the generations – not only can’t farmers replant the soybeans they grew themselves (overturning 10,000 years of agricultural practice), they can’t even plant random soybeans they bought from a grain elevator. Not if they’ve got Monsanto’s genes in them.

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The case:

76-year-old Vernon Bownman, an Indiana farmer, was planting a risky late-season low-yield second crop of soybeans. Rather than pay premium prices for Monsanto’s GMO seeds for a crop that wouldn’t do well, he bought cheap bulk soybeans from a grain elevator.

monsanto wins lawsuit, farmers will fight onHe reasoned that a lot of them would HAVE Monsanto’s genes – the biotech giant controls 90 percent of the soybean market in the US. And he was right – he was able to spray Monsanto’s Roundup week-killer on his fields and most of his plants contained the gene that allows them to survive that chemical onslaught.

Monsanto didn’t like that. They went into his fields and checked (something they swore in another court case they don’t do), and when they found their genes, they sued ol’ farmer Vern.

The lower court ruled that Vern was in the wrong and he had to pay up to the tune of $84,456.20.

The question:

Vern’s lawyers argued that under normal patent law, Monsanto’s rights were exhausted with the first sale. That doctrine is why you can sell your car without violating Ford or Toyota’s patents, or sell your house without violating every patent on every component.

But things get tricky when you start discussing “self-replicating technologies”. That’s the tortured term the companies devised to Monsanto employees and the revolving door with governmentexplain why you shouldn’t be able to replant a seed you had grown on your own farm – the technique that has made agriculture sustainable for the past 10,000 years.

Rather than looking at the request and saying, “Of course there are issues, because patent law was never meant to apply to lifeforms”, the courts bent over backward to help the companies out.

They decided that replanting GMO seeds is more like xeroxing a book and selling the copies, which is a no-no. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld today.

“The question in this case,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, “is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission. We hold that he may not.”

David F. Snively, executive vice president, secretary and general counsel of Monsanto (yes, that’s his name – I could NOT make that up) said in a statement:

“The court’s ruling today ensures that longstanding principles of patent law apply to breakthrough 21st century technologies that are central to meeting the growing demands of our planet and its people. The ruling also provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to invest in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs, and allows America to keep its competitive edge.”

Just for the record:

  • When companies develop new strains of plants, they are called hybrids, and are not entitled to patent protection. Companies managed to make money off that business model for centuries.
  • The only thing Monsanto did that was different was using tech to insert genes from one species into another directly, since that wouldn’t work through breeding.
  • Monsanto in all of its history has only had TWO breakthrough technologies – herbicide resistance (for Roundup)and a built-in pesticide (BT).
  • They’ve parlayed that two-trick-pony-act into billions in sales and dominance of the market (more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and other major crops).
  • While they persistently play the “growing demands of our planet and its people”, their crops are NOT suitable in third-world economies. They work best on fossil-fuel-intensive factory farms.
  • And they sure do love to sue small farmers. According to Bowman’s legal team, the corporate Goliath had filed 136 suits against 400 farmers and 53 small businesses by 2010.

“The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “The court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics.”

The future:

On the bright side, Kagan’s ruling was very narrow – they didn’t really address the issue of “self-replicating technology”, instead ruling that in this particular case, farmer Bowman was in the wrong – but that in some other hypothetical case it was possible that “the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control.”

“Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision which affirms the finding of infringement,” said Bowman’s lawyer, Lawyer Edgar H. Haughe. “But beyond that we are particularly surprised that the Supreme Court did not use this case to address the possibility of self-replicating technology, more broadly. It appears to be a narrow holding  in this case that only goes to farmer Bowman.”

But that’s not likely to impact Monsanto’s bottom line, or the rights of small farmers and organic farming, any time soon.

More on this issue:


About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.


  • Sorry what? The plant copied its genes not the farmer. The farmer put a seed in the ground. He didn’t copy anything. Do Monsanto have a patent on putting seeds in the ground? – No. The xerox analogy doesn’t work. A person knowingly makes a copy. It is not possible to buy soy seed without Monsantos polluted GMO genes. To say that the farmer knew the genes were in the seed is speculation. He didn’t know. He only knew that almost all commercial soy seeds have the gene in them. He only knew that his crop did not die when he sprayed roundup on them. Still he could not be sure. It took Monsantos labs to find out for sure. Did the farmer have a gene sequencing lab? – No. Then how could he know? Only Monsanto knew after running tests. This judgement is absolutely ridiculous. Some Monsanto GMOs are not allowed in Europe, for valid reasons. So why are they allowed in the US?

    So if Monsanto find its patents growing by the roadside can they sue the State?

  • This ruling has to be overturned before the rest of the world is told what to plant……….by Monsanto, they did enough damage on Vietnam with their Agent Orange.

  • I wonder if anyone has tried suing Monsanto for infecting their crops? After all, the Monsanto gene spreads in a viral fashion, which they cannot keep in check.

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