Scales of Justice

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

Sometimes, it seems it would be simple to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice — times when the issues appear so clear cut the ruling could be chiseled in stone and handed to Moses.

Then there are cases when one wonders how any of the justices will be able to find the wisdom to render an adequate judgment.

I had been thinking the dispute over genetically modified soybeans that was argued before the court this week would fit in the second category rather than the first.

However, news reports after the hearing in Bowman v. Monsanto Co. indicate otherwise.

According to reporters who attended the hearing, the justices allowed Monsanto’s attorney to speak at length without interruptions but repeatedly challenged the arguments of the other attorney.

Every issue has its partisans, but to me, this one should have been a real head-scratcher because of the profound implications it has for the future of farming.

At first glance, it looks a bit like a contest of David vs. Goliath.

On the one hand, there is Vernon Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana farmer who had been a good customer of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans and had no intention of violating the company’s rule against saving beans grown from the company’s seed for subsequent planting.

It’s just that Bowman was looking for a cheaper alternative for a risky late-season planting and thought he’d found a loophole in the rules by buying a batch of beans from a grain elevator instead of using ones he had grown himself.

On the other hand is Monsanto, a global company with about $13.5 billion in revenue last year, a whopping 14.3 percent increase from 2011.

According to The Associated Press, Bowman made no attempt to keep what he was doing secret, and in 2007, Monsanto sued him for patent infringement, one of 146 lawsuits it has filed since 1996 for unauthorized replanting of the offspring of its seeds.

A federal court agreed with Monsanto and ordered Bowman to pay the company $84,456, a princely sum for an aging farmer. An appeals court later upheld the ruling.

But Bowman believes Monsanto is taking its rules too far and is pursuing his viewpoint to the final extremity.

After all, farmers have been keeping back some of their crop to replant for thousands of years, which should offer some kind of precedent.

Even the proponents of genetic modification argue that the new process is little different from the ancient practice of improving seed stocks by selecting for desirable traits — just much, much faster.

Bowman has a number of farm organizations backing his argument, including the National Farmers Union and the Center for Food Safety.

Yet it’s hard to view Monsanto as the villain in this legal drama.

This case is not just about a company trying to protect its profits. It’s also about protecting the incentive to make further advances in seed technology — advances that may well prove critical to agriculture’s ability to feed a rapidly growing world in an era of climate change.

Several organizations, including the American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association back Monsanto for that very reason.

Indeed, advances in seed technology have been widely credited with saving a good portion of this year’s national corn crop in the face of a widespread withering drought.

In a sense, the technology of genetically modified organisms is still in its infancy, and it is important that companies such as Monsanto have the means to fund further research and development.

Such advances are protected by the Plant Patent Act of 1930, the first law worldwide to provide plant breeders with the same rights as the inventors of mechanical devices.

Yet, there is another disturbing factor at play here. Monsanto’s soybeans have come to dominate the marketplace so much that Bowman could find no other cheaper alternatives that suited his purpose for a risky, late-season planting.

It’s a decades-old question in antitrust law. At what point does a company become so successful that it starts to monopolize the marketplace? And, additionally, how is it that a single modification can confer ownership of a living thing?

It’s those points the courts need to look at as they consider the greater common good.

Whether the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court come to believe that these are legitimate issues in this case — and if so, how they view the greater good — will bear close watching for all those concerned about the future of farming.

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