It’s the type of case law students will debate in colleges across the country. A David versus Goliath story, corporate conglomerate versus Indiana farmer. In a way, it’s one definition of America versus the other. And in the coming weeks, it’s being played out live in the U.S. Supreme Court.
A 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer named Vernon Hugh Bowman will face off against multibillion dollar agricultural business Monsanto over seeds planted in the ground. Yes, the fight is over seeds, and it’s one that could change the way American farmers do business in the future.
At the heart of the lawsuit is Bowman’s attempt to beat the system currently in place with ingenuity. Bowman, like thousands of farmers today, purchased soybean known as “Roundup Ready” — soybeans genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup herbicide or its generic equivalents — from Monsanto. He planted the seeds in the ground, but is technically “obliged to only harvest the resulting crop, not keep any of it back for planting the next year,” according to an article in the Guardian. This forces farmers to buy new Monsanto seeds to plant with each season.
Bowman found a way around the system, buying excess soybeans from local grain elevators, “many of which are likely to be Roundup Ready due to the huge dominance Monsanto has in the market,” the article explained. It’s believed that 90 percent of soybeans for sale in Indiana known as “commodity seeds” could be seeds containing the genes Monsanto developed.
So when Bowman used the seeds from the grain elevator to replant the following season, rather than purchasing new seeds directly from Monsanto as was the norm, he not only started a trend that could save him a ton of money while producing the same results in his crops, but he angered a powerful former business client in the process. Now he’ll have to face them in a lawsuit at the highest level in country.
The debate is a good one. On one hand you have a single farmer trying to make it in a tough economy, cutting corners without stealing a dime. He’s still purchasing the seeds he’s planting, just in a different way than Monsanto wants it.
“We have always had the right to go to an elevator, buy some ‘junk grain’ and use it for seed if you desire,” Bowman told the Guardian.
On the other hand you have a business that sells a specific product, losing business as that product is manipulated and reused without a new purchase. Monsanto claims it maintains patent rights on the seeds even if they are sold by a third party with no restrictions put on its use, even if the seeds are actually only descendants of original Monsanto seeds.
Monsanto won Round 1, suing and winning a settlement against Bowman for $84,456. Now it insists a win by Bowman at the Supreme Court to allow him to keep replanting the seeds legally would “jeopardize some of the most innovative biotechnology research in the country.”
Farming, one of America’s proudest industries, and one that has been the foundation of nearly every civilization, is at risk of losing even more rights to corporations should Monsanto win the case.
We side with Bowman and his supporters, who say that this case could help reform aspects of commercial farming — currently dominated by corporations rather than small or family-run businesses. Monsanto claims a defeat could hurt their innovations, but isn’t their lawsuit from the start hurting Bowman’s?