Seeds, Patents and Technology

The Supreme Court is hearing a case today involving a lawsuit brought by Monsanto against an Indiana farmer it accuses of violating the patent on its genetically modified seeds.

Some background, via The New York Times:

With his mere 300 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat, Vernon Hugh Bowman said, “I’m not even big enough to be called a farmer.”

Yet the 75-year-old farmer from southwestern Indiana will face off Tuesday against the world’s largest seed company, Monsanto, in a Supreme Court case that could have a huge impact on the future of genetically modified crops, and also affect other fields from medical research to software.

At stake in Mr. Bowman’s case is whether patents on seeds — or other things that can self-replicate — extend beyond the first generation of the products.

It is one of two cases before the Supreme Court related to the patenting of living organisms, a practice that has helped give rise to the biotechnology industry but which critics have long considered immoral. The other case, involving a breast cancer risk test from Myriad Genetics, will determine whether human genes can be patented. It is scheduled to be heard April 15.

What happened is that Bowman planted two fields, one with Monsanto seeds, the other with “commodity” seeds he bought from a grain elevator. These latter seeds are a general mixture that other farmers sell from their harvests. However, many of these commodity seeds are either Monsanto seeds, or those that are genetic derivatives of Monsanto seeds. Meaning, they’ve cross pollinated. Because that’s what plants do.

As the Times notes, agricultural groups are siding with Monsanto. So too universities fearful that a decision against the biotech firm could affect funding incentives for research.

Software makers are also looking on with interest. Note that the case centers on things that can “self-replicate”. Back to the Times:

BSA/The Software Alliance, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, said in a brief that a decision against Monsanto might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software can be easily replicated. But it also said that a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file.

Over in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen notes that Monsanto has sued almost 150 farmers in 27 states. He goes on to write:

Monsanto says it is merely enforcing valid contracts, and protecting its hard-fought patents, and that it has a right to do so aggressively. However, the result of these attempts at market control, the [Center for Food Safety] noted, is “dramatic increases in the price of seeds. From 1995-2011, the average cost to plant one acre of soybeans has risen 325 percent; for cotton prices spiked 516 percent and corn seed prices are up by 259 percent.”

Over at the FJP we have a few videos from an interview we conducted with Micha X Peled, a documentary director who’s latest film, Bitter Seeds, follows a crisis in India where the foreign monopoly on the local seed market has inflated prices and brought on massive local debt. The situation has become so dire that, on average, a farmer kills himself every thirty minutes. You can view those interviews here.

Michael Cervieri

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)