Supreme Court Upholds
Patents on Monsanto Biotech Seeds
May 14, 2013
The seeds of patented plants are patented, too, and replanting them
violates intellectual property law. That’s the ruling from the U.S.
Supreme Court. The court decided a case that pitted the seed company
Monsanto against a farmer who saved the offspring of plants grown from
the company’s genetically modified seeds. Intellectual property rights
supporters call it a victory.
Several years ago, Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman needed seed for a
risky late planting of his soybean crop, says his attorney, Mark
“Farmers used to save their seeds from their first crop soybeans from
the previous year and use those for second-crop planting after wheat.
But that is no longer available as an option because most farmers signed
agreements saying they won’t do that," he said.
Monsanto and other companies require these agreements in order to
protect the technologies the seed makers spent millions of dollars to
develop: Technologies like a genetic trait that makes the plants immune
to Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, which makes weed control much easier.
More than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. contain the
Looking to save money on his risky second crop, Bowman bought soybeans
from the local grain storage facility, knowing almost all would be
Roundup Ready. He planted them, sprayed them with Roundup, and saved
seeds from the survivors.
“That planting, the farmer contended, was beyond the control of
Monsanto," said Jim Crowne, head of legal affairs at the American
Intellectual Property Law Association. The group supported Monsanto in
the case. He says Bowman was relying on a legal doctrine known as patent
exhaustion. It states that the patent holder gives up the rights to a
product once the product is sold.
“Monsanto sold to a farmer, the farmer grew the seeds, the farmer sold
the seed again to the grain elevator. So, there had been these
intervening transactions," he said.
But in the unanimous Supreme Court decision, Justice Elena Kagan wrote:
“The exhaustion doctrine does not enable Bowman to make additional
patented soybeans without Monsanto’s permission … And that is precisely
what Bowman did.”
In other words, Jim Crowne says, it’s fine to buy the seeds, plant them,
grow your crop and sell it.
“It’s not perfectly fine for you to take that seed, replant it, produce
endless iterations of this patented product, essentially allowing you to
avoid going back to Monsanto," he said.
Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles says it’s a key ruling for innovation in
technologies are possible only with huge R&D investments and the patent
laws that make the investment economically feasible," he said.
But Bowman’s lawyer Mark Walters says the ruling puts too much control
in the hands of a few seed companies. Walters says it’s impossible for
his client to find seeds in his area that are not patented.
“He’s been driving several hundred miles into Ohio to find what he says
is the last available public seed source that’s not patented," he said.
While the court has settled this issue of patent protection for seeds,
debate continues on the pros and cons of patented seeds for food
production and farmers' welfare.