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How One 75-Year-Old Soybean Farmer Could Deal a Blow to Monsanto’s Empire Today

Aviva Shen
Think Progress / News Report
Published: Wednesday 20 February 2013
Victor Bowman’s appeal gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to determine whether or not Monsanto is using patent enforcement to control their monopoly on a vital resource.
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On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a 75-year-old soybean farmer’s appeal against biotech giant Monsanto, in a case that could permanently reshape the genetically modified (GM) crop industry. Victor “Hugh” Bowman has been battling the corporation since 2007, when Monsanto sued him for violating their patent protection by purchasing second-generation GM seeds from a grain elevator. An appeals court ruled in favor of Monsanto, and despite the Obama administration’s urging to let the decision stand, the nine justices will hear Bowman make his case today.

Monsanto is notorious among farmers for the company’s aggressive investigations and pursuit of farmers they believe have infringed on Monsanto’s patents. In the past 13 years, Monsanto has sued 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses, almost always settling out of court (the few farmers that can afford to go to trial are always defeated). These farmers were usually sued for saving second-generation seeds for the next harvest — a basic farming practice rendered illegal because seeds generated by GM crops contain Monsanto’s patented genes.

Monsanto’s winning streak hinges on a controversial Supreme Court decision from 1981, which ruled on a 5-4 split that living organisms could be patented as private property. As a result of that decision, every new generation of GM seeds — and their self-replicating technology — is considered Monsanto’s property.

Unfortunately, second- and third-generation seeds are very hard to track, which may explain why Monsanto devotes $10 million a year and 75 staffers to investigating farmers for possible patent violations. Seeds are easily carried by birds or blown by the wind into fields of non-GM seeds, exposing farmers who have never bought seeds from Monsanto to lawsuits. Organic and conventional seeds are fast becoming extinct — 93 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton, and 86 percent of corn in the US are grown from Monsanto’s patented seeds. A recent study discovered that at least half of the organic seeds in the US are contaminated with some genetically modified material.

Bowman’s appeal gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to determine whether or not Monsanto is using patent enforcement to control their monopoly on a vital resource. As GM seeds become more ubiquitous, farmers who want to avoid Monsanto’s strict patents have few alternatives. As a recently released Center for Food Safety report notes, the concentration of market power among Monsanto and a handful of other companies has led to skyrocketing seed prices and less innovation by smaller firms:

USDA data show that since the introduction of GE seed, the average cost of soybean seed to plant one acre has risen by a dramatic 325 percent, from $13.32 to $56.58. Similar trends exist for corn and cotton seeds: cotton seeds spiked 516 percent from 1995-2011 and corn seed costs rose 259 percent over the same period.

[...] USDA economists have found that seed industry consolidation has reduced research and likely resulted in fewer crop varieties on offer: “Those companies that survived seed industry consolidation appear to be sponsoring less research relative to the size of their individual markets than when more companies were involved… Also, fewer companies developing crops and marketing seeds may translate into fewer varieties offered.”

Furthermore, emerging evidence indicates that Monsanto has hardly perfected the technology. A core argument for GM seeds in the 1990s claimed they would reduce chemical pesticide use because the plants themselves would repel pests and weeds. But studies have confirmed the spread of so-called “superweeds” that have developed a resistance to Monsanto’s gene, leading farmers to deploy even heavier doses of herbicides like Monsanto’s own product, Roundup. Another new report debunked the company’s argument that GM seeds would have higher yields; in fact, two of Monsanto’s most popular genes caused yields to drop.

Despite the mounting evidence against their products, the biotech industry enjoys a cozy relationship with government regulators. In December, the Justice Department abruptly dropped their investigation into anti-competitive practices in the industry without so much as a press release. The stalled Farm Bill also contains generous provisions that would allow these companies to put their products on the market with cursory or no review by the USDA.

Today’s oral argument is a study in these intertwined interests: the Obama administration is presenting their own defense of Monsanto, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was once a Monsanto lawyer (but will not recuse himself from Bowman’s case). Still, the same high court that enabled the current state of American agriculture in 1981 now finds itself in a position to check Monsanto’s power—or help them tighten their hold on the industry.

ABOUT Aviva Shen


AVIVA SHEN is a Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining CAP, Aviva interned and wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, Salon, and New York Magazine. She also worked for the Slate Political Gabfest, a weekly politics podcast from Slate Magazine. Previously, she was part of the new media team in Ohio for the 2008 Obama campaign. Aviva received a B.A. from Barnard College.


The only thing that is

The only thing that is twisted is your comprehension of the basic facts:
First, Monsanto does not "sell" seed; it effectively sells a license agreement. Just like Microsoft and Adobe. You want their seed, you have to sign a written agreement about is use and non-use. Otherwise don't buy.
Second if you think you can steal or injure someone and hide the evidence in your home as being safe from discovery under some notion of "private property" you are very much mistaken. Look no further than the Three Mile Island cases or BP in Louisiana. Third you might be able to run a business in your garage or kitchen, but if it catches on and demand becomes a big thing, you will happily join the "large" corporations you think are so evil. And if you want to run a sustainable business you won't get very far if you lie, cheat and copy some other guy's successful product and try to pass it off as your own. Monsanto does not point a gun a farmer's heads making them buy their product; the farmers do so because it is much more profitable for them to so.

Disagree RFM. Does Mosanto

Disagree RFM.

Does Mosanto actually ship the seed for a profit? Then it IS selling the product. The licence is important but in the end it is secondary; would you agree to buy a car if the manufacturer said ... you can't go to Boston with it? The case shown here is, in my honest opinion, very similar to this analogy. You can ask for the moon and have someone sign, but is it reasonable?
Second point. Disagree again. We know Monsanto physically go into farmer's fields to "find" their products. They disregard the basic fact that you cannot simply enter a house with no valid reason (i.e.: life threatening) to find "proof". Try entering Monsanto's home office to search in their filing cabinets? Monsanto will go "nukular" on you and will call you a terrorist. They go around legally forcing their way to search for excuses to sue farmers and it's considered legitimate. Check out the expression "querulant" -->
Monsanto proves quite convincingly that this does not only affect individuals.

Last but not least. "you want to run a sustainable business you won't get very far if you lie, cheat ..."
This is a hillarious rebuttal - when push comes to shove, most "sustainable businesses" lie and cheat. Selling guns to anyone becomes "ensuring security". Polluting like there's no tomorrow becomes "creating jobs". Paying your employees so bad they have to apply for state aid is called "putting america to work". Speculating on food and bare essentials magically becomes "finding new sources of revenue". Putting your profits in tax havens goes from being goddamn cheap to "financially responsible".
If there are corporations that are pure as the driven snow, a whole bunch of them do bad, convince themselves they are god sent and go on insinuating anyone who disagrees are liars and misinformed.

I for one am sick and tired of this situation. We need to change. It's not by making excuses for those who don't want the world to bloom that we're going to make this place any better.

I'm also very pissed off that we keep on getting corporations, staffed with tens of thousands of employees (or more!), loaded with money and political connexions who sue individuals with no power, little money and no political clout … and both sides are considered equal. This bullying has to stop. It is not making our planet any better. Au contraire! It's giving a free hand to the greedy and narcissistic that make a profit by pushing people over.

P.S.: Don't you think that using the supreme court's precious time for this case is a ridiculous waste of human energy? Isn't the life a farmer worth more than the profit loss by Monsanto?

I think the issue is

I think the issue is completely twisted.
First of all, people are all assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Secondly, what you do in YOUR house, on YOUR land is YOUR business. It's called private property.
Lastly, you are free to believe what you want.

All three points have been smashed by the courts when Mosanto is sueing.

Well, not quite. Mosanto does wrong, there is proof, but to the court, it's OK and they get to walk away with a perfect reputation. They are still innocent when they clearly aren't.
Private property. Mosanto has been nosing around people's houses, considering other people's private property their own. But don't you dare go and look into their filing cabinets! Furthermore I take offense when a corporation still tells you it owns something when it has sold it to you. If you don't want something to be posessed by someone else, RENT IT!
Finally they have no respect for other peoeple's beliefs. The belief you should have the right to run a sustainable business, the belief corporations are not people, the belief something sold becomes the property of the buyer, no matter what the contract. The belief a fair judgment implies a judge that has never worked for Monsanto and has no pre-conception of what should be the outcome of the case. For Monsanto, nothing has no value but it's own opinion : The corporation must prevail, no matter the consequences, it is better for a human to perish than the corporation.

Monsanto's been wrong from the get go. This case makes it simple - If you let corporations own the bank, the politicians and the judges, very soon they'll go to court because they can't own YOU.

Seems to me that farmers who

Seems to me that farmers who are planting non-GM seeds that become contaminated with pollen from GM seeds should sue Monsanto for contamination of the genome. Those who have patented and proprietary techniques in other industries have to exercise due-diligence to protect their intellectual property and if they don't, the courts generally find against them. Monsanto ought to insist on some sort of net over GM crops that would block dispersion of pollen outside of the GM crop in order to be considered duly diligent.



I think you have it

I think you have it backwards.

Monsanto would love to be able to use nets or anything else to prevent promiscuous pollination, simply because that gives the farmers who do not pay for seed a valid excuse. However if the farmer then goes and buys Roundup herbicide to accommodate his "polluted" crops, let's face facts about what is going on. He certainly is no longer an innocent party. And without the Monsanto herbicide there is no advantage to using GM Monsanto seed.

Promiscuous pollination is an excuse that cheaters use when they get caught; subsequent investigation always seems to show that they knew what they were doing and the pattern of wind driven pollination is always too uniform.

I am not a biologist but I suspect that the DNA from a plant with Monsanto seed is different from fruit (or seed) that is pollinated from another source.

Judging by the reports from

Judging by the reports from the hearing, it doesn't look good for Bowman. In any case, Bowman isn't innocent. He admits to buying and using Monsanto's seeds and has been happy with the results. Then he tried to do an end run around the agreement. He went to a "grain elevator" where they sell mixed grains for livestock feed or industrial use, not planting. He said that he always plants a second crop of soybean after he harvests his wheat. He used the grain he bought from the seller knowing full well he was getting GM soybean. He just didn't want to pay full price for his second planting since he says the second planting is risky.

I'm honestly not sure how to

I'm honestly not sure how to hope this case turns out. On the one hand, I detest Monsanto and would be happy to see them take a hit. On the other hand, anything that makes it easier for farmers to plant more genetically modified crops is definitely not a good thing!

Joyfulc , dont be misled by

Joyfulc , dont be misled by anything MonSatan claims, they'll use anything to sway the courts decision. Be more concerned about the Internal Struggle that exists today between Good & Evil.

MonSatan & several corporate elite projects are destroying the United States from the inside. From GMO -pesticide contaminations of the entire Food Supply Chain, to CAFO - over polluting Shit Farms w/low Nutritional & over-Anti Biotec / Growth Hormone products, to FRACKING, to KEYSTONE Pipelines to further contaminate our Ground Water, Farming ... to Mega-Corp/Conglomerate control of the entire Win/Win Industries ... from increased processed products that promote Diabetes, Obesities, Cancers to those Drug products that sustan them. We the People are now PART of the built-in Commodity. Can we cang that Paradym?

YES, WE CAN change that. WE CAN expose them. WE CAN set & change LAWS & ethical rules in our favor - to protect us, to protect our land , our water from that corruption ever taking hold again. We are a Young Country & its time for > GENERATION LAW <.

The problem with Mr. Bowman's

The problem with Mr. Bowman's case, as is the case with so many others, is that he wants the benefits of using the Monsanto seed without having to pay for it. That benefit is the time and money saved by using herbicide to clear your fields rather than insecticides, weed pulling and crop loss due to weeds. Some farmers estimate a crop loss as high as 25%, possibly more due to weed growth; herbicides such as Roundup which the Monsanto seed is impervious to, allow an additional 25% profit on the crop. Small wonder the farmers want to use it.
From the farmer's point of view, the extra profits to be gained by using Monsanto seeds and herbicide can be greatly increased if they can find a way to avoid paying for them. One farmer in Canada came up with the story that his field was contaminated by drifting seed from adjacent fields. Testing revealed that even the center of his fields were substantially planted with Monsanto seed. So it is not just the use of the seed that makes the money, the farmer has to buy the herbicide as well, otherwise no benefit to just planting the seeds.

So why should we get worked up about someone that is just an old-fashioned cheater?

What Monsanto is doing here

What Monsanto is doing here it is doing all over the world via legally imposed international agreements of the WTO (World Trade Organization). Indian subsistence farmers of just a few acres have been striped of their land and even jailed. This is not just an isolated incident but a world wide conspiracy to control world agriculture. Don't believe it? Read ' Stolen Harvest, The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply', by Vandana Shiva. (India Research Press, New Delhi, India). Read it and weep. Want more bad news? Monsanto (and several other world seed suppliers that control the world seed supply) are mostly immune from prosecution for damage to crop yields or other GMO caused harm. People - we are rapidly or already have lost control of even basic's like using a part this years crop for next years seed. I'm sorry for the bad news.

Jerry Compton

Right, Jerry! Everyone should

Right, Jerry! Everyone should read "Stolen Harvest", and search out V. Shiva's many talks.

There was a Canadian organic

There was a Canadian organic farmer Monsanto successfully sued nearly a decade ago for patent infringement, who had never planted any Monsanto seed (couldn't, for it would violate his organic certification). But Monsanto's genome showed up in his crops because his neighbor's pollen blew onto his fields, which ruined the sale-abilty of his corn to the organic market and also his organic certification (have to be clean for three years before you can get it back). The courts ruled with Monsanto against the farmer though he had done nothing to steal their patented genes and the presence of them in his crops was ruining his organic business. I think we need a law that would heavily fine (in addition to requiring them to pay for cleanup and all damages done) makers of GMOs every time their genes escape into the wild, though it is probably already too late for this nation, they are scattered so far and wide and will probably soon contaminate all of the Americas.

While I'm no fan of Monsanto

While I'm no fan of Monsanto or GMO, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the court come back in favour for Monsanto. In this case, it doesn't appear that the farmer was trying to avoid using GMO seeds, but rather to get the benefits of GMO without having to pay for it. It doesn't appear to be a case of accidental contamination. I'd rather support those farmers who are honestly trying to avoid GMOs altogether for consumers like myself and my family who want alternatives to GM food.

All the un-Supreme court will

All the un-Supreme court will prove today is that they are nothing but empty headed puppets working for big money.

Nothing new here, just the corporate puppets putting on a show for the lemmings.

With a Supreme Court having

With a Supreme Court having time and time again proved itself to be there for the money, Bowman stands little chance. MonSatan simply offers the justices a better retirement package than the Peoples of the United States.

Did Clarence the clown Thomas

Did Clarence the clown Thomas recuse himself because he is a former Monsanto corporate lawyer?

Nah, he believes he can be fair and impartial because he has no ethics or integrity.

It will be interesting to see

It will be interesting to see how this plays out --- which is more unfriendly to the people, the Supremes or the Obama adminmistration?

(What justification can the administration possibly have for taking sides---especially taking the wrong side---in this, besides being stuffed with former Monsantans?)

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