The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case that could have far reaching impacts on biotechnology patents. Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman fought back against the Monsanto Corporation when it tried to make him pay $84,000 for growing a crop of genetically modified soybeans.
Monsanto's Round-up Ready soy beans are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, the herbicide in Round-up. The trait, which was added to the plant by genetic engineering, enables farmers to spray the crops with Round-up to kill off weeds without damaging crop yield.
Bowman bought soybeans as "outbound grain" from a local grain supplier. In other words, it was sold as animal feed, not seeds for planting. However, he planted them anyway. According to NPR, he was trying to get in a second crop of soy for the year and, since late-season crops are risky and usually lower yield, he decided to go with a cheap source of seed. Although the beans weren't characterized and contained a mix of varieties, he thought they would be adequate. He also admits that he anticipated most of the seed would be Round-up Ready since that is that type of soybeans that most farmers plant.
Bowman argues that he was not infringing on Monsanto's patent because he did not buy the seeds from Monsanto. He bought soybeans, not intended as seeds, from another supplier and he should legally be able to use it however he wants. Monsanto, of course, doesn't agree. However Monsanto's lawyers also assert that, since Bowman purchased Round-up Ready seeds in the past, he has signed a licensing agreement stating he would not save or replant seeds from Monsanto's GM crops.
Most analysts watching the case believe that Monsanto will likely win. If they do not, however, it could have significant repercussions for biotech-related intellectual property. In a field where a lot of patented technology covers self-replicating organisms, a lose for Monsanto could make it difficult for companies to maintain ownership and control of their inventions.