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Farmer's Fight With Monsanto Reaches The Supreme Court

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Farmer's Fight With Monsanto Reaches The Supreme Court

Vernon Hugh Bowman lives outside the small town of Sandborn, Ind.

Vernon Hugh Bowman lives outside the small town of Sandborn, Ind.

Dan Charles/NPR

This week, the Supreme Court will take up a classic David-and-Goliath case. On one side, there's a 75-year-old farmer in Indiana named Vernon Hugh Bowman; on the other, the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

The farmer is fighting the long reach of Monsanto's patents on seeds — but he's up against more than just Monsanto. The biotech and computer software industries are taking Monsanto's side.

Bowman also is battling a historic shift that's transformed the nation's seed business over the past 20 years.

Despite all that, Bowman seems remarkably cheerful about his situation. "Confrontation does not take a toll on me!" he says. "You and me can argue about the Bible; we can argue about religion. I'll pound my fist and we can argue all day, and I won't lose a bit of sleep at night!"

Bowman is leaning back in an easy chair, where he says he also sleeps at night. He lives alone in a modest white frame house outside the small town of Sandborn, in southwestern Indiana.

Out back, there's an array of old farm equipment collected during decades of growing corn and soybeans.

Bowman is wearing a Monsanto hat. It's probably an ironic gesture, but in fact, he's been a pleased and loyal customer of the company's seeds. He thinks the genes that Monsanto inserted into soybeans are just great. They let soybeans survive the country's most popular weedkiller: glyphosate, also known as Roundup. He can spray that one chemical to get rid of the weeds without harming his crop.

"It made things so much simpler and better. No question about that," he says.

Bowman uses these "Roundup Ready" soybeans for his main crop, which he plants in the spring, and he signs a standard agreement not to save any of his harvest and replant it the next year. Monsanto demands exclusive rights to supply that seed.

Bowman bought ordinary soybeans from this small grain elevator and used them for seed.

Bowman bought ordinary soybeans from this small grain elevator and used them for seed.

Dan Charles/NPR

But here's where Bowman got into trouble: He also likes to plant a second crop of soybeans, later in the year, in fields where he just harvested wheat.

Those late-season soybeans are risky. The yield is smaller. Bowman decided that for this crop, he didn't want to pay top dollar for Monsanto's seed. "What I wanted was a cheap source of seed," he says.

Starting in 1999, he bought some ordinary soybeans from a small grain elevator where local farmers drop off their harvest. "They made sure they didn't sell it as seed. Their ticket said, 'Outbound grain," says Bowman.

He knew that these beans probably had Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene in them, because that's mainly what farmers plant these days. But Bowman didn't think Monsanto controlled these soybeans anymore, and in any case, he was getting a motley collection of different varieties, hardly a threat to Monsanto's seed business. "I couldn't imagine that they'd give a rat's behind," he snorts.

Bowman told his neighbors what he was doing. It turned out that Monsanto did, in fact, care.

"He wanted to use our technology without paying for it," says David Snively, Monsanto's general counsel.

Monsanto took Bowman to court, and Bowman was ordered to pay Monsanto $84,000 for infringing the company's patent.

Bowman appealed. To the surprise of many, the highest court in the land agreed to hear his case. "I'm not a-gonna give in! Because I think I've done nothing wrong!" says Bowman.

His lawyers, who are representing him for free, have come up with a legal argument for why he did nothing wrong. If they succeed in persuading the court, it could pull the rug out from under Monsanto, and some other industries, too.

Bowman's lawyer, Mark Walters from the firm of Frommer Lawrence and Haug, says there's a very old principle in patent law: If you buy something that's covered by a patent — let's say it's a cell phone — you own it, outright. "You're allowed to put it on Craigslist and sell it, you're allowed to use it for your 'ordinary pursuits of life' is the quote from some of the old cases that we're relying on."

It's a valuable principle, Walters says. "Imagine how commerce would work if patents owners could come out of nowhere and surprise purchasers and tell them, 'Oh, you need to pay me a royalty, because I own a patent on this thing that you just bought.'"

So according to this principle of "patent exhaustion," Bowman bought that seed and can do with it what he wants. Patent holders have no right to stop him.

Monsanto's David Snively, for his part, says this argument completely misses the point. Yes, we can buy an iPhone and do whatever we want with it, "but we're not going to go out and make copies of the iPhone and put Apple out of business," he says.

That's what Bowman did, says Snively. When he planted this patented seed, he made copies of it.

In fact, he says, if farmers were allowed to do this with patented seeds, the patents would be worthless.

A number of industry organizations have come to Monsanto's defense, including the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Hans Sauer, deputy general counsel at BIO, says many biotech products are a lot like seeds. "They are easily replicated. They are difficult to make, but once created they are relatively easy to reproduce." The same is true of computer software.

Nels Kasey, co-owner of Great Heart Seed, with some of his company's soybean varieties.

Nels Kasey, co-owner of Great Heart Seed, with some of his company's soybean varieties.

Dan Charles/NPR

But these are new technologies. Farmers' seeds are old; they're the original self-replicating technology, and for centuries, nobody tried to claim them as intellectual property.

That's one reason why Monsanto's patents and lawsuits against farmers have stirred up so much anger and received so much attention.

What's less well known, however, is that the practice of patenting seeds has moved far beyond Monsanto and other biotech companies.

It's standard practice now even among small companies like Great Heart Seed, in Paris, Ill.

Great Heart Seed's warehouse is filled to the rafters with white bags of soybean seed. The company sells 45 different varieties in all. Some grow better in the south, others in the north. Most have Monsanto's Roundup resistance genes, while others do not.

Yet all of these varieties are patented. "Nearly everything out there has a patent on it now," says Nels Kasey, one of the Great Heart's owners.

Twenty years ago, that wasn't the case. Many seed dealers sold "public" varieties that came from breeders at universities like Iowa State or Purdue.

Today, most new varieties come from private companies, and even universities acquire patents on most of the varieties that they do release.

Farmers aren't supposed to save and replant those seeds, either.

Kasey says, the new system gives soybean breeders and seed companies more profits, and a stronger incentive to create and sell even better plant varieties. "I'm really proud of the varieties that we have today. When I started in this company, you had a handful of varieties. Today, there's more money in it, more profit in it, so I can support 45 lines," he says.

Those seeds, though, are also more expensive. Soybean seeds have tripled in price over the past 20 years. And a farmer like Bowman who just wants some cheap, generic seeds can't easily find them.

Bowman can see towering bins filled with soybeans all around southwestern Indiana, but according to the seed companies, he can't plant any of them.

In fact, after Monsanto took Bowman to court, his search for unrestricted seeds took him all the way to Ohio, one of the very few places in the country where the state still distributes non-patented soybean varieties.

Bowman acquired some of that seed — a variety called Dennison — and grew it last year. He saved part of his harvest. Those soybeans are now sitting in an old combine in a shed behind his house.

If the Supreme Court rules against him, Bowman can still use those beans for seed this year.

Neon Washable Paint

by on Feb. 18, 2013 at 3:27 PM
Replies (41-50):
SEEKEROFSHELLS
by Platinum Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 9:53 PM

 Spew this shit to someone stupid. It is wrong what they are doing and you defend MONSANTO everytime. Where are YOUR posts to direct folks to CHANGE things in legislature. There ARE NOT ANY. 


Quoting talia-mom:

 I must be hired by them because I think patents should be honored until patent laws are changed.  That could be the only possible reason I think he is in the wrong here.   Nothing else could be the problem even thought he violated many things.


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 I have seen you this forum before. NOT alot. YOU damn well come out swinging for MONSANTO. Everytime. You hired by them or what? This question has been asked before.


Quoting talia-mom:

 Please don't lecture me like I don't know what is going on.

He is using seeds he doesn't have the right to use.

Now, the issue needs to be should companies be able to patent seeds.

I think they should.   You think they don't.

But disagreeing with you doesn't mean I don't know what is happening.

He violated the patent.  Whether or not that should be argued the way it is happens to be totally different.   But he isn't innocent here.  He knew what he was doing and wants everyone to support him violating the patent.


Quoting krysstizzle:

This is an issue of legality and morality (if you will) being completely at odds with one another. We're talking about one incredibly powerful and far reaching company owning a significant portion of the global food supply and wanting more. Countering that by any means is necessary (when I say "any", there are obviously things i'm excluding, like, say, violence).

The reach and power of this company is terrible. There's been a revolving door between the company and the highest levels of the federal government regularly since Reagan, at least.


Quoting talia-mom:

So he assumed he had Monsanto seeds and decided to violate their patent?









talia-mom
by Gold Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 9:56 PM

You really do have an interesting imagination.



Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 Spew this shit to someone stupid. It is wrong what they are doing and you defend MONSANTO everytime. Where are YOUR posts to direct folks to CHANGE things in legislature. There ARE NOT ANY. 


Quoting talia-mom:

 I must be hired by them because I think patents should be honored until patent laws are changed.  That could be the only possible reason I think he is in the wrong here.   Nothing else could be the problem even thought he violated many things.


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 I have seen you this forum before. NOT alot. YOU damn well come out swinging for MONSANTO. Everytime. You hired by them or what? This question has been asked before.


Quoting talia-mom:

 Please don't lecture me like I don't know what is going on.

He is using seeds he doesn't have the right to use.

Now, the issue needs to be should companies be able to patent seeds.

I think they should.   You think they don't.

But disagreeing with you doesn't mean I don't know what is happening.

He violated the patent.  Whether or not that should be argued the way it is happens to be totally different.   But he isn't innocent here.  He knew what he was doing and wants everyone to support him violating the patent.


Quoting krysstizzle:

This is an issue of legality and morality (if you will) being completely at odds with one another. We're talking about one incredibly powerful and far reaching company owning a significant portion of the global food supply and wanting more. Countering that by any means is necessary (when I say "any", there are obviously things i'm excluding, like, say, violence).

The reach and power of this company is terrible. There's been a revolving door between the company and the highest levels of the federal government regularly since Reagan, at least.


Quoting talia-mom:

So he assumed he had Monsanto seeds and decided to violate their patent?











SEEKEROFSHELLS
by Platinum Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 9:56 PM
4 moms liked this

 The food supply belongs to ALL. Plant a seed and GROW things. There should NOT be patents on a seed you put in the earth, cover-up with a bit of dirt, water, and grow.

talia-mom
by Gold Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:01 PM

except they created the seed that they are using


but yeah, who cares about that or about seeds that can and do save millions and millions of people.


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 The food supply belongs to ALL. Plant a seed and GROW things. There should NOT be patents on a seed you put in the earth, cover-up with a bit of dirt, water, and grow.



SEEKEROFSHELLS
by Platinum Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:01 PM
1 mom liked this

 Bite me. You defend MONSANTO everytime. You know it and long term members see it. 


Quoting talia-mom:

You really do have an interesting imagination.



Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 Spew this shit to someone stupid. It is wrong what they are doing and you defend MONSANTO everytime. Where are YOUR posts to direct folks to CHANGE things in legislature. There ARE NOT ANY. 


Quoting talia-mom:

 I must be hired by them because I think patents should be honored until patent laws are changed.  That could be the only possible reason I think he is in the wrong here.   Nothing else could be the problem even thought he violated many things.


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 I have seen you this forum before. NOT alot. YOU damn well come out swinging for MONSANTO. Everytime. You hired by them or what? This question has been asked before.


Quoting talia-mom:

 Please don't lecture me like I don't know what is going on.

He is using seeds he doesn't have the right to use.

Now, the issue needs to be should companies be able to patent seeds.

I think they should.   You think they don't.

But disagreeing with you doesn't mean I don't know what is happening.

He violated the patent.  Whether or not that should be argued the way it is happens to be totally different.   But he isn't innocent here.  He knew what he was doing and wants everyone to support him violating the patent.


Quoting krysstizzle:

This is an issue of legality and morality (if you will) being completely at odds with one another. We're talking about one incredibly powerful and far reaching company owning a significant portion of the global food supply and wanting more. Countering that by any means is necessary (when I say "any", there are obviously things i'm excluding, like, say, violence).

The reach and power of this company is terrible. There's been a revolving door between the company and the highest levels of the federal government regularly since Reagan, at least.


Quoting talia-mom:

So he assumed he had Monsanto seeds and decided to violate their patent?













SEEKEROFSHELLS
by Platinum Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:11 PM

 Can you explaain " Round UP" ready seeds and why you defend Monsanto? OK explain what round up  ready seeds are. 


Quoting talia-mom:

except they created the seed that they are using


but yeah, who cares about that or about seeds that can and do save millions and millions of people.


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 The food supply belongs to ALL. Plant a seed and GROW things. There should NOT be patents on a seed you put in the earth, cover-up with a bit of dirt, water, and grow.





talia-mom
by Gold Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:13 PM

 Your problem is thinking defending patents is equal to defending anything and everything they do.

I don't have to do that and I won't since I haven't done it.


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 Can you explaain " Round UP" ready seeds and why you defend Monsanto? OK explain what round up  ready seeds are. 

 

Quoting talia-mom:

except they created the seed that they are using

 

but yeah, who cares about that or about seeds that can and do save millions and millions of people.

 

Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 The food supply belongs to ALL. Plant a seed and GROW things. There should NOT be patents on a seed you put in the earth, cover-up with a bit of dirt, water, and grow.

 

 

 

 


 

talia-mom
by Gold Member on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:14 PM

 I would prefer not to bite you.

And how could I have a long term defense of Monsanto?  Is this the second or third time it has been brought up since I joined?


Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 Bite me. You defend MONSANTO everytime. You know it and long term members see it. 

 

Quoting talia-mom:

You really do have an interesting imagination.

 

 

Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 Spew this shit to someone stupid. It is wrong what they are doing and you defend MONSANTO everytime. Where are YOUR posts to direct folks to CHANGE things in legislature. There ARE NOT ANY. 

 

Quoting talia-mom:

 I must be hired by them because I think patents should be honored until patent laws are changed.  That could be the only possible reason I think he is in the wrong here.   Nothing else could be the problem even thought he violated many things.

 

Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 I have seen you this forum before. NOT alot. YOU damn well come out swinging for MONSANTO. Everytime. You hired by them or what? This question has been asked before.

 

Quoting talia-mom:

 Please don't lecture me like I don't know what is going on.

He is using seeds he doesn't have the right to use.

Now, the issue needs to be should companies be able to patent seeds.

I think they should.   You think they don't.

But disagreeing with you doesn't mean I don't know what is happening.

He violated the patent.  Whether or not that should be argued the way it is happens to be totally different.   But he isn't innocent here.  He knew what he was doing and wants everyone to support him violating the patent.

 

Quoting krysstizzle:

This is an issue of legality and morality (if you will) being completely at odds with one another. We're talking about one incredibly powerful and far reaching company owning a significant portion of the global food supply and wanting more. Countering that by any means is necessary (when I say "any", there are obviously things i'm excluding, like, say, violence).

The reach and power of this company is terrible. There's been a revolving door between the company and the highest levels of the federal government regularly since Reagan, at least.


Quoting talia-mom:

So he assumed he had Monsanto seeds and decided to violate their patent?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

mich.el.le
by on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:16 PM

I wish Monsato would fall of the face of this earth. They're greedy sob's. 

krysstizzle
by on Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:24 PM
2 moms liked this
They took that germplasm to make that seed from generations of farmers. I don't see them rushing to defend the rights of those plant breeders/farmers.

Those seeds aren't saving anyone. Higher chemical inputs are required, including pesticides linked to disease and cancer, creating toxic runoff. Additionally, crop diversity has plummeted, and lack of biological diversity is not a good thing, particularly when considering our food supply. Small farmers and subsistence farmers areI being pulled into crippling debt and a vicious cycle of buying more things necessary to grow these seeds, after continually being lied to.

Monsanto is saving no one. This industrialized food system is not eradicating hunger, it is exacerbating it and creating awful health consequences to boot.


Quoting talia-mom:

except they created the seed that they are using


but yeah, who cares about that or about seeds that can and do save millions and millions of people.



Quoting SEEKEROFSHELLS:

 The food supply belongs to ALL. Plant a seed and GROW things. There should NOT be patents on a seed you put in the earth, cover-up with a bit of dirt, water, and grow.




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