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.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    Brexit Vote Triggers Increase in Racist Attacks

    Britain's decision to leave European Union seen by some as 'permission' to unleash anti-immigrant resentment

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    AIIB Takes Big Strides Amid Fears About China's Dominance

    Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank says it is independent, but concerns persist; China holds 20.6 percent of bank's shares, others have less than 7.5 percent each

    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.
    Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmarki
    X
    John Owens
    June 26, 2016 2:04 PM
    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora