News / USA

Biotech Seed Patent Case Goes to US Supreme Court

Monsanto's high-omega-3 soybeansMonsanto's high-omega-3 soybeans
x
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

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike in Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid