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Organic Consumers Association

Should Monsanto Own Patent Rights on the Elements of Life?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

On 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?

The journey of a 75-year-old Indiana farmer to the highest court in the country began rather uneventfully. Vernon Hugh Bowman purchased an undifferentiated mix of soybean seeds from a grain elevator, planted the seeds and then saved seed from the resulting harvest to replant another crop. Finding that Bowman's crops were largely the progeny of its genetically engineered proprietary soybean seed, Monsanto sued the farmer for patent infringement.

The case is a remarkable reflection on recent fundamental changes in farming. In the 200-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 a diverse array of plants that could thrive in various geographies, soils, climates and ecosystems. But today this history of seeds is seemingly forgotten in light of a patent system 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 all living things, whether patented or not, to replicate. Monsanto's claim that it has rights over 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, they don't go hungry. If people are denied seeds, the potential consequences are much more threatening.


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