Supreme Court Sides with Monsanto in GMO Seed Case

By Brett Snider, Esq. on May 14, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Monsanto's patent rights were infringed by soybean farmer Vernon Bowman when he planted second-generation seeds that were meant for consumption.

The Court may have made its unanimous decision in the case in small part due to Bowman's somewhat ingenious way of selecting out Monsanto crops from bulk seed mixes and further developing those crops, reports The New York Times.

This ruling, issued Monday, may be the first of many in the battle over GMO foods. But this decision already has significant consequences for growers using genetically modified seeds.

Vernon Bowman Had a Farm, G-M-GMO

In the Supreme Court's Monsanto case, career farmer Vernon Bowman purchased "Roundup Ready" soybeans from Monsanto, which are genetically modified in order to resist the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, called glyphosate.

As part of the purchase agreement with Monsanto, Bowman signed a "Technology Agreement" with the corporation, promising that he would not use the seeds produced by the first generation of crops for planting.

Despite knowing this arrangement, Bowman decided he would find some Roundup Ready seeds by selecting out Monsanto seeds from bulk seeds he purchased from another farmer, arguing Monsanto's patent was exhausted.

Patent Exhaustion Argument Uprooted

Just like many other types of products, soybeans and many other plants can be patented, and Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans are no exception.

Bowman argued that despite Monsanto holding a lawful patent on the seeds, once they sold the seeds to a farmer, under the patent exhaustion doctrine, their patent rights on those items terminate, allowing another farmer to plant the second-generation seeds as they see fit.

But the Supreme Court disagreed, with Justice Kagan explaining that the patent on an item like Roundup Ready seeds would be worthless if the purchaser "could make and sell endless copies," and the patent exhaustion doctrine does not entitle Bowman to make new copies of Monsanto's product without infringing on their patent rights.

Open Questions for New Crop of Cases

The Court's holding does not close off the growing question of how far GMO patents like Monsanto's Roundup Ready might extend, especially in more complex cases, reports USA Today.

Some possible cases where genetic modification patent suits are upcoming include:

  • Farmers whose plants are pollinated by GMO pollen via wind or bees,
  • Patents on DNA markers for breast cancer, and
  • Patented self-replicating bacteria that are repurposed.

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