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Senior Contributor

The Register's Editorial: Court right to uphold seed patent protections

An Editorial in one of the main Iowa papers on the Patent Seed issues. Worth just a quick read to see what the media/press are saying on this issue. Article is below:



The Register's Editorial: Court right to uphold seed patent protections


Value of agricultural genetics research would plummet if infringement were allowed


The soybean is one of nature’s truly amazing products.

It is useful in so many ways as protein for humans and animals, cooking oil, ink, cosmetics and even crayons. When the soybean is planted, it produces an exact duplicate of its parent plant. All a soybean farmer need do is set aside some beans from one crop and plant them for next year’s crop.

That is, in effect, what Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman did for several years until he was sued by Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant that holds a patent on its unique brand of soybeans. Bowman fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he finally reached the end of the line Monday when the court ruled unanimously that Bowman’s practice infringed on Monsanto’s seed genetics patent.

There is good reason to question the concentration of agricultural seeds in the exclusive hands of a few global corporations, but it is hard to disagree with the court’s reasoning in this case. The justices simply recognized a longstanding principle of U.S. law that encourages investment in innovation by assuring that patent-holders will be able to profit from their inventions beyond the first copy.

Monsanto holds a patent on what it calls Roundup Ready soybeans, which have been genetically engineered to withstand field application of the herbicide glyphosate, including Monsanto’s Roundup brand. When applied on soybean fields, glyphosate kills most everything in its path but the soybeans.

This makes the Monsanto beans a valuable commodity because farmers don’t have to make numerous passes over the fields to remove or spray weeds at considerable cost of fuel and time.

Farmers who buy Roundup Ready soybeans agree to harvest and sell only one crop, meaning they have to buy seed from Monsanto in subsequent years. It has filed numerous patent infringement lawsuits against farmers who violate these agreements.

Bowman, however, exploited what he thought to be a loophole by buying soybeans from a local grain elevator and planting them in his fields. Since 90 percent of all soybeans sold commercially are Roundup Ready, the vast majority of his crop survived applications of Roundup herbicide. And since soybeans produce an exact copy of the parent, this provided him fresh supplies of Roundup-tolerant seeds for future crops.

Except that those beans, Monsanto argued, carried the company’s patented genetics. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said the court has long excluded such reproduction in patent cases “so that the patentee retains an undiminished right to prohibit others from making the thing his patent protects.” If such copying were permitted, patents would “plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention” and the patent protection would extend not for the 20 years provided by law “but only for one transaction.”

If that were the case, every farmer would follow Bowman’s lead, and Monsanto would no longer enjoy the financial benefit of its investment in creating Roundup Ready soybeans. That may not trouble critics concerned about agribusiness concentration, but gutting a principle of patent law would discourage the innovation that has increased crop yields exponentially.

Copyright and patent laws are under siege in an age when new technologies allow for exact reproductions of everything from recorded music to objects issued from three-dimensional printers.

But, at least as the Supreme Court is concerned, the soybean’s ability to produce an identical copy of itself doesn’t mean a hill of beans if farmers use seeds with ancestry in the laboratories of Monsanto.



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