(Host) Usually, "a hill of beans"
means very little. But last week, the United States Supreme
Court heard a case that could attach a pretty heft price tag to that
hill of beans – soy beans, that is. Commentator and Vermont Law
School Professor Cheryl Hanna explains.
(Hanna) This story began when Vernon Bowman, an
Indiana farmer decided to plant some soy beans. But these were not
any soy beans: these were Monsanto’s Round-Up ready soy beans that
he bought from a grain elevator. These genetically modified seeds can
be sprayed with the herbicide Round-up. Round-up kills the weeds and
leaves the soybeans.
It took thirteen years and millions of
dollars for Monsanto to develop these beans, and to protect their
investment, they got a patent from the United States government which
allows farmers to plant the seeds once. But seeds self-replicate, and
the patent arguably forbids farmers from planting the second
generation of seeds.
Bowman had bought an original batch of
the seeds for his main crop, but decided to do a second planting
using seeds intended for feed and milling and did so for eight years.
The soybeans grew, and Monsanto sued him and won close to $85,000.
The case was just argued before the
United States Supreme Court, and I know that Vermonters are closely
watching it. Many farmers here and across the country have felt that
Monsanto bullies them – controlling how the seeds are used but
incurring none of the risks of farming. Indeed, Monsanto has been
very aggressive with farmers. As well as demanding payment for
self-replicating seeds, Monsanto has successfully sued farmers whose
crops have been infiltrated by Round Up ready soybeans that have
drifted from other farms. And Monsanto has made clear that it will
sue the state of Vermont if it does pass a bill requiring the
labeling of genetically modified foods.
Monsanto hired Seth Waxman, the former
solicitor general and Supreme Court titan, to argue their case.
Waxman told the Court that Monsanto needed to protect its investment
and that case has implications for other self-replicating
technologies. Companies would have no incentive to invest in these
products if purchasers could use their seeds a second-time around.
During argument, Waxman included a startling fact: Monsanto’s
technology is arguably the largest, fastest technological adoption in
human history. The first seed was sold in 1996; it’s now 90% of the
soybean farmland in the entire world.
It is also interesting to note the
Obama Administration, which also argued, sided with Monsanto.
And Mr. Bowman’s
lawyer had a bad court day- a really bad court day – including
calling Justice Breyer "Mr. Breyer." These mistakes aren’t
fatal, but they do suggest that, increasingly, who your lawyer is
makes a big difference in these high stakes cases. Bowman’s
argument was just not as convincing if you followed the questioning.
Most legal analysts have their money
on Monsanto, and I’ve got to agree. It seems highly unlikely the Court
would limit Monsanto’s patent to the first planting. A win for
patent protection, a loss for the average farmer.