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Testing the limits of seed patents

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 11, 2013 02:54 PM

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soybeans.jpegOn January 20th the Ideas section featured an article by Robin Feldman on the troubled state of the U.S. patent system. The problem, Feldman explained, is that patent rights are being too broadly construed, encouraging litigation and strangling innovation. Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that will determine the scope of a particular class of patents pertaining to genetically modified organisms.

The case pits a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer named Vernon Hugh Bowman against the agribusiness giant Monsanto. As The Guardian explained over the weekend, at issue is whether Bowman violated Monsanto’s patent on its “Roundup Ready” soybeans when he planted a small field on his 300-acre farm.

Monsanto created Roundup Ready in the 1990s to be resistant to the widely used weed-killer Roundup (which is also made by Monsanto). The product has been a huge success, and in some regions it now accounts for over 90 percent of soybean production. In order to protect its research and development investment, Monsanto's standard agreement prohibits farmers from saving seeds from a harvest for use the following year. For years Bowman used Roundup Ready and abided by that agreement.

But in 1999 he bought some seed from a local grain elevator for a small late-season planting. Not surprisingly, most of those seeds turned out to be Roundup Ready (because just about all soybean seeds in Indiana are), though Bowman had no contractual agreement with Monsanto regarding their use. Bowman planted the grain elevator seed, sprayed his field with Roundup, and used seed from the surviving plants in successive years. Monsanto sued, claiming that with each planting, Bowman was creating illegal copies of its product. By reply, Bowman told The Guardian, "We have always had the right to go to an elevator, buy some 'junk grain' and use it for seed if you desire.”

Monsanto has been victorious so far in lower court rulings. The company's lawyers conclude their brief, writing that if the Supreme Court overturns those decisions, it would "deny protection to other inventors who are seeking to develop revolutionary technological advances." The Obama administration is also on Monsanto’s side, seeing a defeat for the company as a defeat for patent protections of all kinds of self-replicating biotechnologies. Bowman, meanwhile, is supported by groups like the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds. They hope that a favorable ruling would lead to more reforms throughout a commercial seed business that is currently dominated by a small handful of companies.

Image courtesy of Silk Cut

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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