Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. Is Really About Owning Life

By Analiese Paik

If anyone thinks the Bowman vs. Monsanto case heard by the US  Supreme Court on Feb. 19 is a simple case of farmer vs. biotech giant, they’re wrong. At the heart of the question is not whether farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman benefited from buying grain elevator seed for his late season soybean crop, thereby avoiding buying seed from Monsanto while still enjoying its benefits (herbicide resistance). Bowman as much as admitted that he knew the seeds would be mostly GM and he’d be able to spray RoundUp to control weeds without any harm coming to his crop.

This new report investigates the very issue at hand in Bowman's legal battle against Monsanto - how control of the global seed supply has shifted and become consolidated in the hands of large biotech companies, thereby putting farmers at risk for allegeded seed patent infringement.

It’s much more complicated a question that centers around the debate about who owns life and whether it should even be patentable. It gets complicated when we consider that Monsanto owns the seed patent, but they didn’t invent the entire seed, they just modified it (GMO) by inserting foreign DNA into it to make it unique, useful and therefore patentable. What about the work that’s been done for hundreds of years in the public domain to create the seed they used to create their biotech enhanced version? Why do they get to own that? Didn’t they just take it? Debbie Barker, international program director at the Center for Food Safety raised this issue during an NPR interview with OnPoint host Tom Ashbrook on Feburary 20. The entire radio show was dedicated to the Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. case and is one of the best resources you’ll find for understanding how deep-reaching this case really is and the positions being taking by each side.

During the OnPoint interview, Bowman pointed out that Monsanto’s technology is self-replicating (something living things do on their own), giving Monsanto claim to seed produced from patented seed purchased under license by a farmer (second generation seed). He made the case for Monsanto abandoning any claim to that second generation seed because it failed to require in its licensing agreement that a farmer identify it as such (identity preserved) at the grain elevator. How’s a farmer to know what he’s buying if it’s not labeled GM?

And what happens when farmers can’t find Non-GM seed anymore and are indirectly forced to buy biotech seed? Aren’t we looking at a real consequences,  intended or not, of patenting life? Aren’t we really talking about who controls the food supply? The food we need to live?

Patents do expire but the biotech industry continues to turn out next generation seed, starting the clock ticking all over again. In the future, how will second generation seed still protected by patent license be distinguished from seed with an expired license in cases like Bowman’s? Oh what a tangled web we weave.

Indiana Farmer Takes Seed-Giant Monsanto To Supreme Court, NPR’s OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook, February 20, 2013. Listen here:


2 thoughts on “Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. Is Really About Owning Life”

    • James, I didn’t think hybrids seeds would be saved since they don’t reproduce true to the parent. Also, I’ve never heard of a case where a hybrid (non-GM) seed company sued a seed saver for patent infringement. Have you? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks.

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