Farmer's seed case heads to high court

Vernon Hugh Bowman, 75, says a loophole let him use soybeans not meant for seed. Monsanto requires seeds to be purchased annually.
Vernon Hugh Bowman, 75, says a loophole let him use soybeans not meant for seed. Monsanto requires seeds to be purchased annually. (MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP)

Monsanto claims he violated a patent.

Posted: February 20, 2013

WASHINGTON - Vernon Hugh Bowman seems comfortable with the old way of doing things, right down to the rotary-dial telephone he said he was using in a conference call with reporters.

But the 75-year-old Indiana farmer figured out a way to benefit from a high-technology product, soybeans that are resistant to weed-killers, without always paying the high price that such genetically engineered seeds typically bring. In so doing, he ignited a legal fight with seed-giant Monsanto Co. that has now come before the Supreme Court, with argument taking place Tuesday.

The court case poses the question of whether Bowman's actions violated the patent rights held by Monsanto, which developed soybean and other seeds that survive when farmers spray their fields with the company's Roundup brand weed-killer. The seeds dominate American agriculture, including in Indiana, where more than 90 percent of soybeans are Roundup Ready.

Monsanto and DuPont Co. are the two biggest suppliers of genetically modified seeds.

Monsanto has attracted a bushel of researchers, universities, and other agribusiness concerns to its side because they fear a decision in favor of Bowman would leave their own technological innovations open to poaching.

The Obama administration also backs Monsanto, having earlier urged the court to stay out of the case because of the potential for far-reaching implications for patents involving DNA molecules, nanotechnology, and other self-replicating technologies.

Monsanto's opponents argue that the company has tried to use patent law to control the supply of seeds for soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa. The result has been a dramatic rise in seed prices and reduced options for farmers, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Herbicide-resistant soybean seeds first hit the market in 1996. To protect its investment in their development, Monsanto prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown. Farmers must buy new seeds every year.

In seeking a cheap source of seed, Bowman found what looked like a loophole in the policy and went to a grain elevator that held soybeans typically sold for feed, milling, and other uses, but not as seed. Bowman reasoned that most of those soybeans also would be resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. He was right, and he repeated the practice over eight years.

Monsanto sued him for violating its patent in October 2007. Bowman's is one of 146 lawsuits Monsanto has filed since 1996 claiming unauthorized use of its Roundup Ready seeds, said David Snively, Monsanto's top lawyer.

A federal court in Indiana sided with Monsanto and awarded the company $84,456 for Bowman's unlicensed use of Monsanto's technology. The federal appeals court in Washington that handles all appeals in patent cases upheld the award.

The Supreme Court will grapple with the limit of Monsanto's patent rights, whether they stop with the sale of the first crop of beans, or extend to each new crop that soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weed-killer.

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