By developing and inserting a glyphosate- resistant gene into plant DNA, Monsanto Co. has created premium seeds of soybean, canola and cotton able to withstand its Roundup herbicides and similar weed killers.
In the agribusiness world, Monsanto is known as an aggressive enforcer of restrictions on farmersí use of its patented line of genetically engineered crops. Now the St. Louis-based conglomerate is in a showdown with a southern Indiana farmer that will play out this month in the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue is Vernon Hugh Bowmanís argument that Monsanto lost the right to keep him from planting Roundup Ready soybean seeds he bought from a grain elevator. The seeds came from soybean growers who had harvested and sold second-generation seed to the elevator, which in turn sold them to Bowman.
Itís an argument Bowman lost in a federal district court and on appeal. They found that Bowman owed the company $84,456 as compensation for patent infringement.
But Bowman, now 75, raised a question in his petition to the Supreme Court for a review that piqued the justicesí interest. They ignored the solicitor generalís advice to reject the case and are set to hear oral arguments Feb. 19.
The Office of the Solicitor General, Biotechnology Industry Organization, Software Alliance and the American Soybean Association, among others, have lined up in support of Monsantoís argument that a decision for Bowman could undermine patent protections for man-made cell lines, nanotechnology, electronic software development and other self-replicating products.
Bowman has the support of the National Farmers Union, Center for Food Safety, American Antitrust Institute, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and the Public Patent Foundation. The groups say a court decision in favor of Monsanto will give patent holders undue control in the distribution and use of their products. Competition, they argue, will suffer.
Lawyer Mark P. Walters, a Seattle patent attorney who worked his way through law school in a university seed lab, will make the arguments for Bowman. It will be his first appearance before the high court. To fight back, Monsanto has brought out President Bill Clintonís former solicitor general, Seth P. Waxman.Test of Patent Law
This is the first time the Supreme Court has reviewed a Monsanto lawsuit against a farmer for alleged violations of company restrictions on using the progeny of patented seeds to produce additional crop. Generally, the cases end when Monsanto wins in the lower courts.