Monsanto execs applaud Supreme Court's decision on seed patent
By Doug Rich and Dave Bergmeier
Two executives applauded a decision May 13 by the U.S. Supreme Court’s that said an Indiana farmer violated Monsanto Co.’s patents on soybean seeds resistant to its weed-killer by growing the beans without buying new seeds from the corporation.
According to a story by The Associated Press, the justices unanimously rejected Vernon Hugh Bowman’s argument that cheap soybeans he bought from a grain elevator are not covered by the Monsanto patents, even though most of them also were genetically modified to resist the company’s Roundup herbicide.
“I don’t know what the book was on a 9-0 vote, but we felt pretty good the way the case had gone,” Hugh Grant, chairman and chief executive officer at Monsanto said.
“I think it was an area that needed some precedent. It was an area that had not run all the way to the Supreme Court in a long, long time. It is not just Monsanto and it is not just agriculture—it is a broad range of technologies in the self-replicating area.”
Grant and Brett Begemann, president and chief commercial officer, spoke shortly after the decision was announced as they were attending Monsanto Media Days in St. Louis.
According to the AP, in the case decided by the court, Bowman bought expensive, patented Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds for his main crop of soybeans, but decided to look for something cheaper for a risky, late-season soybean planting. He went to a grain elevator that held soybeans it typically sells 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, the AP reported. He was right, and he bought soybeans from the grain elevator and planted them over eight years. In 2007, Monsanto sued and won an $84,456 judgment.
Monsanto has a policy to protect its investment in seed development that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown. Farmers must buy new seeds every year.
While Monsanto won this case, the court refused to make a sweeping decision that would cover other self-replicating technologies like DNA molecules and nanotechnologies, leaving that for another day. Businesses and researchers had been closely watching this case in hopes of getting guidance on patents, but Justice Elena Kagan said the court’s holding only “addresses the situation before us.”
More than 90 percent of American soybean farms use Monsanto’s seeds, which first came on the market in 1996, the AP reported.
Bowman’s lawyers argued that Monsanto’s patent rights stopped with the sale of the first crop of beans instead of extending to each new crop soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weed-killer.
But Kagan disagreed. “Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article,’’ she said. “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for such conduct.” Bowman also said he should not be liable, in part, because soybeans naturally sprout when planted.
Kagan said the court also did not buy that argument. “We think the blame-the-bean defense tough to credit,” she said.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety, said the ruling was wrong.
“The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers,” Kimbrell said. “The court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds’ reproduction to farmers, rather than nature.”
The soybean case is Bowman v. Monsanto Co., 11-796.
Jesse J. Holland reported on this story for AP.