Supreme Court hears Bowman v. Monsanto, and Social and Legal Questions Arise as to the Use of Genetically Modified Seed

February 20, 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2012, by Carla M. Gray
A debate over the uses of genetically modified seed come to the forefront again as the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Bowman v. Monsanto this week.  In the case, Bowman contends that he purchased the genetically modified seed, and therefore has the right to plant seeds produced from crop yields through the doctrine of patent exhaustion and first sale. The merits of patent exhaustion for seed are currently in oral argument. Monsanto argues that such use violates the “Technology Agreement” between Monsanto and Bowman. The litigation will undoubtedly yield a decision that could have an adverse impact on either farmers or biotechnology companies.
The Bowman litigation brings to the forefront the question: what is the appropriate use and scope of use of genetically modified seed, and what priorities and needs should the seed’s uses serve?
It could be argued that the appropriate use of the seed should be decided by the company that created it. For example, Monsanto should be able to profit off of its research or protect its investment in research and development of seed.  Without a profit incentive to create modified seeds, there would be less incentive to do so. With no incentives, companies like Monsanto would not seek to develop new or creative solutions to farming or seed issues.  This is probably why in Bowman v. Monsanto, Monsanto argues that seed patents should extend to the technology, not the particular generation of seed.
However, Monsanto’s position, if affirmed, could affect the availability of foods and the nature of the food market.  The food market has already seen a prolific introduction of GMO seeds and foods.  For example, less than a year ago Monsanto’s genetically modified, Roundup-Ready sugar beets were deregulated by the FDA.  Furthermore, genetically modified, Roundup-Ready soybeans are also on the market, and they account for more than 90% of the soybeans grown in the United States.

The Bowman litigation brings to the forefront the question: what is the appropriate use and scope of use of genetically modified seed, and what priorities and needs should the seed’s uses serve?

Some also claim that as much as “60% to 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves have genetically modified ingredients.”  Ultimately, these foods have changed with the food market looks like because genetically modified foods, rather than traditional foods, are becoming more prevalent and are also created by only a few companies.  This prevalence can be observed in that “the market concentration of 10 agrochemical companies own[s] about two-thirds of global commercial seed for major crops.” This action therefore has the capacity to change the availability of the types of foods one might see in the supermarket.
This case could also affect the way society envisions farming. This is because seeds have traditionally been seen as “part of the public domain,” where the same seeds were freely reproduced through the planting of crops to feed and sustain generations of people.  Under Monsanto’s position, seeds still have the capacity to feed others, but they must be repurchased after first generation use, making the use of their seeds restricted.
Ultimately, the Bowman v. Monsanto case brings to light societal and legal issues worth considering.