Supreme Court hears arguments over soybean patents

Vernon Bowman

A small Indiana farmer is battling a multinational corporation, and on Tuesday that battle wound up in the nation's highest court.

The US Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Vernon Bowman versus Monsanto Co.

The agribusiness giant says Vernon Hugh Bowman, one of its loyal customers, broke the law by violating one of its patents.

The 75-year-old Bowman, who grows soybeans on his southern Indiana farm says those claims are unfair and wrong. Still, he never thought it would get to this point - all the way to the Supreme Court.

After emerging from the courtroom he told a large group of reporters gathered outside, "I really couldn't imagine them suing in the first place, but no, I wouldn't have dreamed it would have gone to the Supreme Court."

What the high court heard was a case involving Bowman's right to use seed he bought legally versus Monsanto's right to protect its patents.

Monsanto has developed seed that produce plants resistant to insects and weed killers. In this case, a soybean seed known as "Round-up Ready." Farmers who buy the seed agree not to save or replant any of their harvest, as Monsanto sees the genetically modified seed as intellectual property.

Bowman said he's always abided by that when planting his main crop in spring and summer. The difference in this case? When Bowman he decided to squeeze in a late or second bean crop, he wanted the cheapest seed he could find as late crops often require planting twice as much as seed to get a decent yield.

So, he bought soybeans from a grain elevator to use as seed. Since most of the beans grown in Indiana are Mosanto's, he knew most of the beans he bought were likely Round-up Ready.

Asked if it was a "loophole," he told reporters, "I didn't look at it as a loophole because I was able to go to the elevator and buy seed. I just looked at it when they dumped it in there, they'd abandoned their patent." If not, he said, "why not keep it separate?"

Monsanto saw it differently and took him to court with a federal judge ordering him to pay $84,000. Bowman fought that winding up at the US Supreme Court six years later.

Asked if he was afraid of losing, he said, "not necessarily afraid, but I know it's a possibility. One good thing going for me is I'm poor, so they can't take a couple thousand acres away from me in a lawsuit."

But others say the stakes are far higher for Monsanto and other companies involved in research and development - that if patents aren't protected, there will be less money invested in new research and technology.

A ruling is expected early this summer.

The case is being closely watched by researchers and businesses holding patents on DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.