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20-02-13 Monsanto, The Court and the Seeds of Dissent

20-02-13 Monsanto, The Court and the Seeds of Dissent

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Published by William J Greenberg
n Tuesday, attorneys for the largest agrochemical corporation in the world, Monsanto, will present arguments before the Supreme Court asserting the company's rights to the generations of seeds that naturally reproduce from its genetically modified strains. Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. will be decided based on the court's interpretation of a complex web of seed and plant patent law, but the case also reflects something much more basic: Should anyone, or any corporation, control a product of life?
n Tuesday, attorneys for the largest agrochemical corporation in the world, Monsanto, will present arguments before the Supreme Court asserting the company's rights to the generations of seeds that naturally reproduce from its genetically modified strains. Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. will be decided based on the court's interpretation of a complex web of seed and plant patent law, but the case also reflects something much more basic: Should anyone, or any corporation, control a product of life?

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Published by: William J Greenberg on Mar 14, 2013
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A farmer is seen holding Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean seeds at his family farm in Bunceton, Mo. (photo: Dan Gill/AP)
Monsanto, the Court and the Seeds of Dissent
By George Kimbrell, Debbie Barke, The Los Angeles Times
20 February 13
 n Tuesday, attorneys for the largest agrochemical corporation in the world,Monsanto, will present arguments before the Supreme Court asserting the company'srights to the generations of seeds that naturally reproduce from its geneticallymodified strains. Bowman vs. Monsanto Co. will be decided based on the court'sinterpretation of a complex web of seed and plant patent law, but the case also reflectssomething much more basic: Should anyone, or any corporation, control a product of life?The journey of a 75-year-old Indiana farmer to the highest court in the country beganrather uneventfully. Vernon Hugh Bowman purchased an undifferentiated mix of soybean seeds from a grain elevator, planted the seeds and then saved seed from theresulting harvest to replant another crop. Finding that Bowman's crops were largelythe progeny of its genetically engineered proprietary soybean seed, Monsanto sued thefarmer for patent infringement.The case is a remarkable reflection on recent fundamental changes in farming. In the200-plus years since the founding of this country, and for millenniums before that,seeds have been part of the public domain - available for farmers to exchange, save,
 
modify through plant breeding and replant. Through this process, farmers developed adiverse array of plants that could thrive in various geographies, soils, climates andecosystems. But today this history of seeds is seemingly forgotten in light of a patentsystem that, since the mid-1980s, has allowed corporations to own products of life.One of Monsanto's arguments is that when farmers save seed from a crop grown from patented seed and then use that seed for another crop, they are illegally replicating, or "making," Monsanto's proprietary seeds instead of legally "using" the seeds by planting them only one time and purchasing more seeds for each subsequent planting.This logic is troubling to many who point out that it is the nature of seeds and allliving things, whether patented or not, to replicate. Monsanto's claim that it has rightsover a self-replicating natural product should raise concern. Seeds, unlike computer chips, for example, are essential to life. If people are denied a computer chip, theydon't go hungry. If people are denied seeds, the potential consequences are much morethreatening.Although Monsanto and other agrochemical companies assert that they need thecurrent patent system to invent better seeds, the counterargument is that splicing analready existing gene or other DNA into a plant and thereby transferring a new trait tothat plant is not a novel invention. A soybean, for example, has more than 46,000genes. Properties of these genes are the product of centuries of plant breeding andshould not, many argue, become the product of a corporation. Instead, these genesshould remain in the public domain.The seed industry also claims that if patents are made narrower in scope, innovation,such as devising environmentally sustainable ways to farm, would be stifled.However, evidence casts doubt on the prevalent assumption that positiveenvironmental impacts have resulted from their seed technologies.Take the example of the genetically engineered soybean in question. Its innovativetrait is that it is resistant to the herbicide Roundup, whose primary ingredient isglyphosate. However, weeds are developing a rapid resistance to glyphosate.In January, Farm Industry News reported that the area of U.S. cropland infested withglyphosate-resistant weeds expanded to 61.2 million acres in 2012. These "super weeds" are gaining momentum, increasing 25% in 2011 and 51% in 2012.In response, farmers resort to more soil-eroding tillage operations to combat theweeds, and they turn to more toxic chemicals. Based on data from the USDA, as muchas 26% more pesticides per acre were used on genetically engineered crops than onconventional crops.

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