Monday, February 18, 2013

Supreme Court - Farmer vs. Monsanto

I hope this old guy wins. 

Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana farmer figured out how to squeeze an extra bonus crop out of the growing season and to get around seed-giant Monsanto's strict monopoly on weed-killer resistant seeds. Tuesday he goes up against the monolithic agricultural company in the supreme court.

The deal is this:  Bowman bought Monsanto's patented Roundup-resistant seeds for his first crop.  Roundup, by the way, is also a Monsanto product.  For a risky, late season crop, however, Bowman needed a cheap source of seed. Monsanto doesn't allow farmers to reuse some ot the second generation seeds from their own crops, a practice that has kept farming viable for millenia.  Since Bowman can't reuse his own beans and he can't buy seeds from other farmers who are also bound by the agreement they are forced to sign when buying Monsanto seed.  Few dealers carry cheap unmodified seeds, especially later in the season and a late season crop is too risky to buy the more expensive seeds.
What Bowman did was go down to a grain elevator that had a supply of viable soybeans that they usually sell for livestock feed or milling, but not as seed.  Bowman figured most of those beans would be resistant to weed killers and would grow just fine.  He continued the practice, not keeping it a secret from anyone, for eight years before Monsanto, smelling a profit to be made, or rather to be lost and sued him for violating their patent.

Monsanto, too my way of thinking, is a bit too much of a monopoly. They hold a virtual stranglehold on agricultural seed production with up to 90% of the seed market in some places. Monsanto claims to own the gene for weed-killer resistant soybeans, corn and other genetically altered seeds, even unto the third and fourth generation as the Book of Judges would put it.  I'm not sure that's quite fair.  If you look at how other industrial patents and copyrights are treated, it seems Monsanto is being treated rather better than some of us.

For instance, I'm a writer. My book is posted on My publisher and I own the rights to those books as my intellectual property.  When my publisher prints a copy and sells it, they pay me a small royalty.  My books are also sold on  If they are sold new, I make about $3 per book.  also sells used copies of my book that belong to people who bought it new and no longer need it sitting around on their shelves.  I receive absolutely no royalties for those used books, whether or not I own the intellectual property rights.  I only profit from what I actually produce. I get paid for first sale of my product, but I don't get paid when my product gets resold, lent out or stuck on a library shelf for anyone with a library card to read. It's the same for any other patent or copyright holder. If I buy a Ford Mustang new from the company, keep it 40 years in mint condition and resell it for 10 times its original value, Ford does not get a penny from my good fortune.

I think Monsanto is over-reaching by claiming that subsequent generation seed genes are covered under its patent. While I understand that Monsanto needs protection so that another seed company shouldn't be able to just start producing identical seeds for sale by using Monsanto's seed stock, we're not talking about patent infringement.  The farmers have already bought and paid for the original seeds. Mr. Bowman is merely wanting to use the seeds he already paid for to get an extra crop in the same year on his own farm.  Okay, so don't let him buy the seeds from the grain elevator.  Fine, you don't want grain elevators setting themselves up as seed companies using Monsanto's seeds.  But I think a farmer should be able to use the second generation seeds in the same year if he already paid for the seeds once.  It would give Monsanto a bit of good will with the farmers if they could okay farmers using second generation seeds in that way if they get them from their first harvest in order plant a risky second season crop.

Make it a one season deal on the contract. How hard would that be. Good for the economy because it makes risky second crops profitable for farmers, it increases the crop grown for that year and thereby reduces the price of soybeans and soybean products. Good for the farmer because it makes that second crop affordable. Good for consumers because it lowers prices. 

It's time American companies gave a little bit to help their direct customers and their indirect customers, the food-buying public. Monsanto, at 90% saturation of the seed market, looks a wee bit like a candidate for an anti-trust suit if you ask me.  I would think it wise if they stopped acting so much like robber barons that they draw the attention of some ambitious lawyer. Monsanto has the Obama administration in their pocket on this one thanks to generous campaign donations to Democrats, no doubt. Like too many corporations participating enthusiastically in what the dominant party calls "managed" capitalism, Monsanto doesn't much care if consumers pay for their protected business monopoly at the grocery store.

Like I say, I hope this old guy wins in the Supreme Court. It would be refreshing if the Supreme Court could encourage corporate giants to show a bit of compassion to their customers.  It isn't going to cost them anything in this case.  Bowman isn't going to risk a second crop if he has to buy the expensive seeds. Then he doesn't make a profit.  Had Monsanto taken a look at the situation and said, "Okay, this is fair use, we'll allow it," they would likely have saved themselves a lot of legal expense.  They're certainly not going to make more money if they win.  Bowman and other farmers will simply not plant that second crop and consumers will pay at the grocery store for higher priced food.

Besides, there are people starving in Africa. The more food we grow, the more we have to sell where people need food.  The more we sell, the more we can afford to give to the hungry around the world and in our own country. Where's the compassion Mr. President?  Here we have one of those evil corporations the president is always saying need to contribute a little more to the general welfare, AND we have a solution available that neither hurts the corporation, the farmer, the public nor the poor and starving of the world. It is not an expensive solution. It doesn't require the creation of a new government agency.  It requires only a slight change of wording on Monsanto contracts. Monsanto doesn't lose money. Arguably, it would never have had that money anyway.  Farmers won't do second crops with Monsanto first generation seeds. It's not worth the risk given the high cost of the investment. If Monsant's competition is smart, they'll get the cheap seeds out there for that second crop and capture that niche market.  After all, the fields have already been weeded, so the fields shouldn't need another dose of roundup.  You have to wonder how Mosanto is going to charge farmers for second use of weed-free fields if farmers start heavily using non-engineered seeds for high-risk second crops. Monsanto should stop worrying about its monopoly and start worrying about what's good for its customers.  Second use per season of their seeds would be a great way to show farmers and consumers that the company wasn't pulling a modern day version of the JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller or Cornelius Vanderbuilt.monopolies that earned them the sobriquet - "robber barons".

Ah, but like someone once told me when a group of us proposed a low-cost and simple solution to a local transportation problem that seniors and people with disabilities were having, "The problem with your idea is that it's too simple and it's far too inexpensive, and besides," he grinned, "Nobody would make money on it and no politician would be able to take credit for it."

Our idea didn't get accepted and I don't hold out a lot of hope for poor old Mr. Bowman. It's too simple and only farmers and consumers would benefit. It would be far too difficult for any politician to take credit for and it certainly wouldn't help the Democrats (or the Republicans for that matter) to get re-elected.

Just sayin'


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