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Seeds in the Dock

March 12th, 2013

by Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman reports on a lone farmer from Indiana who is locked in a bitter legal dispute with the GM seed giant Monsanto.

It sounds like something from a book about the perils of the future, but that future is already today’s strange  reality – the company Monsanto genetically engineers seeds to have traits that make the resultant plants resistant to the effects of herbicides like Roundup.

But when these seeds are bought by farmers, they must sign away their rights to freely use the seeds of future generations. After all, Monsanto reasons, as it’s investing in the biotechnology it needs to ensure future business for its investment.

Typically, environmentalists are against Monsanto’s practices, arguing that there are certain inalienable rights people have when they buy seeds. Some farmers in Egypt have resisted Monsanto’s genetically modified maize, while the Israeli company Morflora claims to have a new way of washing seeds to avoid contractual problems with Monsanto.

However, farmers need to think about their future profits, and in some markets buying Monsanto seeds is the only way to stay relevant.

A recent story in the New York Times recounts that to date Monsanto has won all court cases against farmers who have infringed the company’s terms. But now, Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old farmer from south-west Indiana, may have found a legalistic ploy to subvert Monsanto’s rules.  

He is using soy seeds produced by his crop which he sold to, and then bought back from, a grain elevator which markets the seeds for animal food.  Bowman contests that the contract he signed with Monsanto didn’t provide for him buying the same seeds back from another party.

Thus in the US Supreme Court he will face off against the world’s largest seed company, in a case that could have a huge impact on the future of genetically modified crops, and also affect other fields from medical research to software.

Bowman said that he didn’t want to pay Monsanto huge sums of money for their soy seeds because he planted his crop late in the season, after his wheat harvest, and that it was bound to fail.

He lost to a district court hearing in 2007, and had to pay Monsanto more than $80,000 for infringing patents owned by the company. But now he is planning to fight till the end, commenting: “I was prepared to let them run over me, but I wasn’t getting out of the road.”  

Bowman claims that once the beans are sold to the grain elevator, Monsanto has no more rights to them. That’s the argument which he is bringing with him to court, and he is being helped by lawyers working pro bono.

Although the ‘patenting’ of living organisms has long been considered immoral, its proponents argue that it’s the only legal tool in place that can support and nurture the biotechnology industry - which could be hugely affected by any Supreme Court ruling on this new (ongoing) case.  

It’s worth noting that the seeds in question are produced by Monsanto to make crops tolerant to (Monsanto produced) Roundup - a strong herbicide that kills weeds but not the crop. Roundup has been linked to several human ailments, including birth defects.

If more farmers returned to, or adopted, methods such as organic farming and permaculture, and sometimes heirloom seeds, issues with companies such as Monsanto and its GM seeds would become irrelevant.

Karin Kloosterman is an environmental blogger, and founder of Green Prophet. She has written articles for The Huffington Post, TreeHugger, and the Ecologist.

Image of David & Goliath courtesy of




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