It’s an important day for the agricultural world. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Bowman v. Monsanto.
This is big. Really big. Maybe not Marbury v. Madison¹ big, but close. This case could be agriculture’s Brown v. Board of Education. You’ve never heard of it? Let me fill you in: the case pits 75-year old soybean farmer Vernon Bowman against the biggest name in the agrichemical sector: Monsanto. The same company who brought us PCBs, rBGH, DDT, and Agent Orange. Can someone please tell me how they haven’t been shut down??
I’m not looking to start a debate on the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or the hazards of using pesticides and herbicides in agriculture. I’m not going to get into the economical and environmental problems of monocropping (planting hundreds or even thousands of acres of one crop). Not today.
Today I just want to focus on the case and its implications.
Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been saving seeds. It’s what makes farming viable. Think about it. One seed yields one plant. Each plant can produce many fruits or vegetables and each fruit or vegetable contains many seeds. Remember that pumpkin you carved for Halloween? All those nasty, slimy seeds you had to scrape out so you could stick that candle in it? That one pumpkin yielded dozens of seeds! If each of those seeds produced just one more pumpkin the next season, you’d have enough pumpkins to stock your freezer with homemade pie for the year. And then each of those second generation pumpkins would give you dozens of seeds as well…you get the picture. In a few short years, you go from one pumpkin to swimming in them!
Unfortunately, this system doesn’t lend itself to a profitable business model. Let’s say I have a great tomato plant that produces the most delicious tomatoes you’ve ever tasted. You’d like to plant some so you ask if you can buy some seeds from me. I agree and that’s the end of it. It’s a one time deal because now you have the ability to grow your own tomato plant and save seeds for yourself. You no longer need me for my seeds! A business that puts itself out of business in the course of a growing season isn’t a very good one.
Monsanto found a way around this. Through genetic engineering they have created a line of Roundup Ready® seeds. Theses seeds and the plants they produce are immune to the deadly effects of Roundup® (which Monsanto also produces…but I said I wouldn’t go there). Plants grown from non-modified seeds cannot be sprayed with Roundup because it kills them right along with any weeds. By using Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® seeds, a farmer can spray the whole field with Roundup®. Weeds will be killed while the Roundup Ready® plants continue to thrive. Spraying means the farmer doesn’t have to till the soil to control weeds, a process that, done year after year, deprives the soil of nutrients and promotes erosion. These seeds are protected by patents and farmers are not allowed to save any to plant the following year.
Vernon Bowman is a soybean farmer. The title of this post is a bit misleading because he’s not the outstanding character Jimmy Stewart plays by any stretch. Money was tight so he decided to plant an extra, late-season soy crop. Its success was a gamble at best so he wanted to use cheap seeds rather than investing in the pricey patented seeds he used during the regular season. He’d signed away his rights to save any seeds from his main crop so he bought soybeans from the local grain elevator. Knowing that he and all his neighbors who sold to the grain elevator planted Roundup Ready® seeds, he was betting the beans he’d get from the grain elevator would be Roundup® immune, too. And he was right. He continued buying seeds this way for eight years.
Monsanto found out that Bowman’s crops contained their patented genetics and sued him for patent infringement.
This case is not necessarily challenging Monsanto’s right to patent first-generation seeds. Whether you agree with their practices or not, they invest a great deal of money in developing these technologies and expect to reap a reward from that investment. The problem is that seeds are living things. They produce children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They cross-pollinate with different varieties of GM plants, and even with non-GM plants to create new varieties within a given species. There are dozens of varieties of corn alone! What happens when a GM Silver King cross-pollinates with a non-GM Lancelot? Does Monsanto own the rights to those offspring? That is the question before the court: how far down the line does Monsanto’s patent extend. One generation? Two? Indefinitely?
What’s At Stake
It is, at its heart, a question of who has the right to own life? I realized we are talking about seeds, but seeds are living beings. They have a life cycle. They grow, reproduce, die. They evolve. They adapt. They nourish and give life. That Monsanto has patents over even one generation is suspect. What kind of monopoly will be created if they are allowed to own not just the seeds they produce, but any seeds produce by those seeds from now until the end of time?
Why You Should Care
GM soy and corn form the foundation of the standard American diet (more on that to come!). You’d be hard pressed to find a food in the grocery store, other than fruits and veggies, that is free from a derivative one or both of these two products. Competition is key to keeping prices low. There are roughly 10 major agrichemicals companies in the world and these 10 companies control 2/3s of the commercially-available seeds. As a result, “[o]ver an 11-year period, the cost per acre of planting soybeans has risen a dramatic 325%.” Those increases get passed along to the farmers and the consumers.
Unlike others in the anti-GMO camp, I do not applaud Mr. Bowman’s tactics or consider him a friend of the movement. He loves Monsanto’s seeds and has no problem using Roundup on his crops. He set out to find a loophole and I cannot condone his brazen deceit. That being said, I hope he wins. I hope the Court is brave enough to stand up to the Monsanto GMO empire.
For further reading:
1. Nerd alert: Marbury v. Madison established the Court’s power of judicial review.