Most of the time, wading through the details of a Supreme Court case is an exercise in cognitive stamina. Even though the issues are often squarely in the public consciousness, the legal briefs that accompany such cases normally make a 1040 return look like the Sunday comics.
The case of Bowman v. Monsanto, however, presents not only an intriguing biotech backstory but clear and compelling legal arguments, as well.
Here’s the background:
An Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman, planted Monsanto’s patented Roundup-Ready® soybeans—and paid the firm’s licensing fees— for several years. However, knowing that almost all of the conventional soybeans grown in Indiana carried the genetically modified trait that makes them glyphosate-resistant, Bowman allegedly bought unlabeled commodity soybeans from a grain elevator to plant as a second crop. According to Monsanto’s brief, he then sprayed his fields with Roundup, thus killing the soybeans that did not carry the genetically engineered resistance trait, cultivated several soybean crops and saved the seeds for re-planting.
However, after six years of his allegedly circumventing the licensing agreement Monsanto requires famers to sign—which entitles them only to plant a single commercial crop and prohibits them from saving the seeds for re-planting or buying Round-up Ready seeds from an unauthorized dealer—the company filed suit, alleging patent infringement.
An Indiana federal district court concluded that Bowman did indeed infringe on Monsanto’s patents, and the federal Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling. Bowman appealed, and the Supreme Court decided to hear the case last fall. Oral arguments will take place on Feb. 19, with a decision expected in late spring.
Crimping the company’s R&D?
An amicus brief filed on behalf of the American Soybean Association, 15 state soybean associations, the National Corn Growers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, American Sugarbeet Growers Association, and Growers for Biotechnology took the position that if farmers can do an end-run around Monsanto’s licensing fees by purchasing commodity seeds for planting, “A domino effect would ensue. To remain competitive, more farmers would need to gamble on buying commodity grain for planting. Of course, commodity soybeans sold by an elevator do not comply with federal or state seed laws regarding labeling or certification and therefore farmers know little about the germination rate, moisture content, weed percentage or other important planting-related information about the grain they are purchasing.”