Friday, February 15, 2013

Indiana Soybean Farmer Hugh Bowman Takes on Ag Giant Monsanto in the Supreme Court

David vs. Goliath – Goliath Winning – So Far

All of us get mad in some dispute and say, “we’ll fight this all the way to the Supreme Court”.  We don’t.  But Hugh Bowman does.  Mr. Bowman is an Indiana soybean farmer who went to the grain elevator and bought soybeans which he planted.  Monsanto says he committed a huge wrong against them and won an $850,000 judgment.  Mr. Bowman has taken his case to the Supreme Court, and incredibly, the Supreme Court will hear his case.

Mr. Bowman - He's Going to Disneyland the Supreme Court!

Of course things are slightly more complicated than the above summary.  Monsanto has developed soybean seed that can survive treatment with Roundup © which is the major weed control chemical sprayed on fields.  Farmers who buy the special seed can use it only once, they cannot save the progeny of the first crop to plant as a second crop.  Mr. Bowman had a way around that restriction.

What Bowman did was to take commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s planting violated the company’s restrictions.

Monsanto says this is a violation of its rights, and so far has won in lower courts.  It’s logic is this.

An adverse ruling, Monsanto warned the court in its brief, “would devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high research and development costs.”

“Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto states.

And it has created a new term,

The farmer was in effect “soybean laundering,” according to some of the companies supporting Monsanto at the Supreme Court — selling Roundup Ready progeny beans to the grain elevator and hoping other farmers were too, then buying them back and planting them.

Mr. Bowman had been fighting the battle alone, but now has help in his upcoming Supreme Court hearing.

Bowman originally represented himself, with the help of a local attorney, in the legal proceedings. But now Seattle lawyer Mark P. Walters and his intellectual property law firm are working pro bono on Bowman’s behalf.

In a rare admission, this Forum admits it has no idea of who is right and who is wrong here.  There is no question that planting the seed and harvesting new seeds is “copying” similar to reproducing copyrighted material without authorization from the copyright holder.  But it is also clear that once a farmer has purchased soybeans from a grain elevator he or she should maybe have the right to do with them as he or she pleases, including planting them.

So we will wait to see who wins this case, hoping that Mr. Bowman does just to get a win for the little guy, but expecting Monsanto to win because, well because the Supreme Court in its current makeup doesn’t really support the little guy does it. 

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