The Supreme Court recently unanimously ruled in favor of Monsanto in a lawsuit that has far reaching implications for genetic modification and individual control of the food chain. At issue was whether a farmer could buy soybeans from a grain elevator and plant them even though those soybeans were grown with Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready soybean stock. The court ruled that the farmer violated Monsanto’s patent doing so.
There are a couple of interesting points to this. First, the farmer does have a contract with Monsanto to buy its Roundup Ready soybeans and he did so for the traditional first planting season. He then decided to attempt a risky second planting with the much cheaper soybeans he was able to purchase from a local grain elevator. Second, 90% of soybeans grown in the United States are Roundup Ready. Talk about a monopoly! Third, the Supreme Court made it clear that all the thorny issues involved with this decision are only relevant to this decision and no inferences should be made as to the general legality of patented gene modification technology.
I call balderdash on that third point. I am far from an expert, but I’ve never heard someone cite a case and the citation be rejected because the Supreme Court called no backsies when they made the decision. Of course this decision is going to be used as precedent in the many cases to come! The “this is not meant to be a sweeping decision” language is just political cover for an incredibly contentious issue.
Think about the implication here. The Supreme Court has ruled that a company can create a self-replicating organic product and then decide how the offspring of that product is used ad infinitum. I buy and plant Roundup Ready seed from Monsanto. I plant those seeds and sell the resulting crop to person B. Person B is restricted from planting the seeds I sold him. Person B sells the seed to person C. Person C is restricted from planting the seeds that person B sold him. Monsanto can dictate exactly how those soybeans are used throughout the soybean’s life cycle no matter how many generations that soybean exists. In theory, this means that Monsanto could dictate exactly what products are made with those soybeans. Not that I think they would ever do something so stupid.
The farmer in this case almost certainly deserved to lose. He signed a contract with Monsanto and he tried to skirt that contract in an inventive way. The problem is HOW he lost. The Supreme Court is saying that he violated patent law, not contract law. Monsanto can and does go after farmers who plant non-Roundup Ready crops that happen to get cross pollinated with a neighbor’s Roundup Ready plants. This Supreme Court decision declares that Monsanto has every right to do so.
This is one of those issues where the law definitely needs to be updated but there is so much money involved that there is almost unanimous political agreement that nothing will be done. Self-replicating technologies should not be patentable. If companies like Monsanto want to mess with genes to produce a superior plant they should mess with a few more genes and make those plants infertile.