News / USA

Biotech Seed Patent Case Goes to US Supreme Court

Monsanto's high-omega-3 soybeansMonsanto's high-omega-3 soybeans
Monsanto's high-omega-3 soybeans
Monsanto's high-omega-3 soybeans
The giant American agrichemical and biotech seed company, Monsanto, will be the subject of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday. It's a case that asks: Who owns the offspring of a product that copies itself? The answer could affect the future of genetically modified organisms, as well as emerging software, medicine, and other new technologies.  

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans are among the most popular crop seeds purchased by American farmers, because they make weed control easy. Spray a field with the company’s popular Roundup weed killer, and just about the only plants left standing are the soybeans, which have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide. More than 90 percent of the U.S. crop includes either this or a competing technology.

But they’re expensive. Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman thought he would save some money by buying soybeans from his local grain elevator that were destined for animal feed or food processing. That’s according to his attorney, Mark Walters.

"And he figured Monsanto can’t claim to own this grain that’s in the grain elevator because it’s just a mixture of everyone else’s seed. And it’s not really a good source of seed in the first place," said Walters.

But Bowman planted the seeds. They grew. And when he sprayed the plants with Roundup, most of them survived and produced a new crop of soybeans. He saved some of that crop and planted it the next year.

That’s not allowed, says Monsanto. Roundup Ready technology is protected by a patent. Though farmers have saved seed for generations, Monsanto requires them to sign an agreement saying they will not save its patented seeds from year to year. Monsanto says Bowman is making unauthorized copies of its seeds.

But Walters says what Bowman did is perfectly legal under longstanding patent law.

"It’s called patent exhaustion. When somebody claims that they have a patent on something, and you bought it in a sale that was authorized, then the patent rights go away," he said.

For example, when you buy a new phone, you can use it or sell it, however you want. The phone maker has no rights to it anymore.

Bowman argues the same applies to the soybeans in the grain elevator. Monsanto owned the original seed, but once the soybeans were harvested and sold to the elevator, they were fair game.

But others say it is not the same because phones do not make copies of themselves the way seeds do. That’s why patent protection needs to cover the next generation of seeds, too, said Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles.

"These biotechnologies require hundreds of millions of dollars to develop but can be readily replicated millions of times because they consist of genetic or other easily copied material,” he said.

Other biotech companies outside agriculture are siding with Monsanto, said Cathy Enright with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

“If you don’t maintain the rights, then there’s no return on the investment for the companies that are developing these products," she said. "And if there’s no return on the investment, why on Earth would they invest?”

If Monsanto loses the case, Enright said, not only would crop development suffer at a time when the world’s demand for food is growing, but so would innovation in vaccines, stem cell therapies and biofuel-producing algae, to name a few.

Any new technology that makes copies of itself could be affected, which is why software makers and other high-tech businesses also are backing Monsanto.

But George Kimbrell with the Center for Food Safety said patents on seeds have helped just a few companies, like Monsanto, concentrate control over the food supply.

“To have the privatization and the concentration of seeds the way we do now is only a few decades old. So this case is the current vehicle that could offer a way to renegotiate that social contract," said Kimbrell.

Kimbrell and others say loosening patent protection would push the balance of power away from the big corporations, and return to farmers a measure of control over one of their primary inputs - their seeds.

The Supreme Court will have the final say in a ruling expected later this year.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jacob McCandless
February 16, 2013 1:13 PM
Two legal elements in this case:

First, the "growing" of the seeds is the done by the farmer. Monsanto cannot claim it has an investment here.

Two, the seeds are sold as, well, seeds. The benefit of Monsanto's efforts (GMO advertising sales) are not being infringed upon. There is no loss of sales because these are otherwise ordinary seeds. That they would extend certain benefits to a particular farmer or any farmer is not proven, especially in that the farm did not buy a known GMO seed.

For pondering upon:

Investment in bio-technology has benefits. There are inherent draw backs however in that the world is populated by otherwise non-GMOs. The non-GMO is not required by law to respect GMO's. On the other side of the coin, the admitted deliberate tampering with DNA or other aspects of organisms would introduce a liability.

The patent may only prohibit genetic modification of DNA as Monstano has done. The right to identify and advertise GMO seed would belong to them as proprietary information, trademark, copyright, etc.

A corn is modified. Is the the corn what is grown or is it the modification?

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs