Seed Saving: Monsanto’s Achilles’ Heel

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Photo By Peter Blanchard /
Corporate agriculture on the experimental farm, your tax dollars at work. Ironically, note the much greener field beyond the sprayed one.

The biotech giant Monsanto is notoriously litigious about its patent rights, but an upcoming Supreme Court case could stop the company in its tracks. For years, Monsanto has prohibited its customers from saving second generation seeds from its GM crops like Roundup Ready, while also requiring that farmers sign an agreement saying they won’t do seed saving. At the same time, the Monsanto Corporation has sued dozens of farmers for terms of use and patent violations–even when the crops had been dispersed onto farmers’ fields by the wind.

But grain elevators are a different story, says Tom Laskawy in Grist (October 10, 2012). Traditionally, farmers save seeds from one season’s crop and sell them in a local exchange. The seeds are mixed in grain elevators and sold as generic (and cheaper) alternatives to more reliable brand-name types, like Roundup Ready. Despite its strictness in other areas, Monsanto’s terms of use don’t challenge the practice, which is exactly what Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Bowman was counting on.

Having bought Roundup Ready soybeans from Monsanto–and agreed to the company’s exacting terms of use–Bowman would then sell the second generation seeds to a grain elevator. But for the next season, Bowman simply bought generics from the local exchange, sprayed them with Roundup, and watched what happened. Having identified the Monsanto varieties (the ones that didn’t die), Bowman saved those for the following year, while also saving a good deal of money.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Monsanto to sue Bowman, and for five years, the two parties have been fighting each other in federal courts. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, with a ruling expected in early 2013. Because Bowman’s terms of use agreement only applied to the first round of seeds he bought from the company, Monsanto’s only recourse is patent law. But the implication, Laskawy says, is that Monsanto would have exclusive rights to its GM creations in perpetuity, even later generations that are bought and sold by third parties. And because the Supreme Court has already said that DNA is legally patentable, this ruling could be a big deal. “Imagine owing a drug company licensing fees because you passed genetic material from some advanced gene therapy drug onto your child, for instance,” writes Laskawy.

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