Odd allies join case
Center for Food Safety seeks to curtail Monsanto's power, but backs biotech farm
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A farmer accused of violating patent law by planting transgenic seed has won the support of an environmental group opposed to genetically engineered crops.
The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit involved in several legal battles over biotechnology, has filed a court brief in favor of a soybean grower whose legal battle with Monsanto has landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Vernon Bowman, an Indiana farmer, was ordered to pay $84,000 in damages to the biotech developer for planting "commodity" soybeans that he obtained from a grain elevator.
Glyphosate-resistant "Roundup Ready" soybeans patented by Monsanto are predominant in the region, and Bowman admitted to spraying the crop with the herbicide.
However, he claims the company's patent rights were legally "exhausted" when the soybeans were sold without restriction to the grain elevator, meaning he could plant the seeds without violating the patent.
If the nation's highest court agrees with Bowman, it could disrupt the biotech seed industry's business model, according to several legal experts.
Buying seed from elevators would then provide farmers with a loophole, allowing them to benefit from biotech traits without paying more for transgenic seed, experts have told Capital Press.
By making the cultivation of genetically engineered crops cheaper and less restrictive for farmers, a victory for Bowman would seem to run counter to the Center for Food Safety's objectives.
However, an attorney for the group said the possibility that altered genes would become more prevalent and easily disseminated wasn't a certainty.
"It's speculative to say whether that would lead to increases or not," said George Kimbrell, who helped write the Supreme Court brief.
Seed saving and breeding have long been the domain of farmers, so a ruling against Monsanto would simply give the company less control over seeds, Kimbrell said.
"Farmers know best, not Monsanto," he said.
However, Kimbrell said it was an exaggeration to suggest that a victory for Bowman would financially cripple Monsanto and other biotech developers, as they could still be paid royalties and benefit from contractual provisions.
"Any claims from them that this will cause them significant economic harm are hyperbolic," he said.
The Center for Food Safety would prefer for biotech developers to be protected by contract -- rather than patent law -- because the provisions are subject to more scrutiny in court, Kimbrell said.
Farmers found liable for patent violations are also likely to pay more in compensation, he said. "The damages are punitive, not just compensatory."
The group is also troubled by patent protections for biotech traits because they prevent scientists from conducting independent studies of biotech crops, Kimbrell said.