December 10, 2012 / 9:35 PM / 5 years ago

Food safety group calls for court to limit GMO seed patents

5 Min Read

* Indiana soybean farmer taking case to Supreme Court
    * Extent of patent protection for biotech crops at issue

    By Carey Gillam
    Dec 10 (Reuters) - Patent protection for genetically
modified corn, soybeans and other crop must be limited so
farmers can save their seeds and protect themselves against
litigation, a public interest group said in a filing with the
U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a case involving global seed
giant Monsanto Co.
    The case that the high court will hear next year involving
an Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Bowman is but a "microcosm of a
systemic problem," and the outcome of the case could have
far-reaching impacts as Monsanto and other biotech seed
developers expand their dominance of agricultural seeds,
according to the Center for Food Safety (CFS), which filed the
amicus brief Monday in support of Bowman. 
    "It is a really critical moment for the court in terms of
plant patenting," said CFS attorney Andrew Kimbrell. "Patenting
should not interfere with a farmer's right to save seeds. They
should not resell them or repackage them or become competitors
of Monsanto, but the seed they buy they should be able to use
them in a natural way for planting. This is not only about
farmer rights, it's about farmer survival."  
    Monsanto and other seed developers charge premiums for their
genetically altered seeds and closely guard use of the seeds
carrying technological traits such as herbicide resistance.
Monsanto requires growers to use the seeds only for a single
crop, and prohibits them from saving the second-generation seeds
from the harvested crop, ensuring farmers buy new seeds each
season.
    "The U.S. patent system protects - and should protect - the
rights to easily replicated technologies like herbicide-tolerant
seeds, just as it does for those who invent computers or
life-saving medicines," said David Snively, executive vice
president and general counsel for Monsanto in a statement. 
    But in its brief, CFS said it was illogical to argue that
farmers' "non-inventive activities of planting and harvesting"
were equal to a scientist inserting non-plant genetic material
into plant DNA.
    "Planting seed in the normal course of farming and having it
reproduce is vastly and fundamentally different than genetic
engineering," the brief states.
    The case dates to 2007 when Monsanto sued for infringing its
seed patents. Bowman said he bought the seeds as part of an
undifferentiated mix of "commodity" seeds from a grain elevator,
and that farmers had used such seeds for planting for decades.
Commodity seeds come from farms that use biotech seeds as well
as those that do not. No licensing agreements are required with
the sale of such seeds.
    Bowman argued that he should be able to use those
second-generation seeds for a natural and foreseeable purpose of
planting and that Monsanto's patent rights were exhausted after
its initial sales of the seeds. Monsanto prevailed and Bowman
was ordered to pay more than $84,000 in damages.
    Bowman is one of more than a hundred farmers sued by
Monsanto in recent years over unauthorized use of its seed
technology. Many farmers favor the technology because it allows
them to spray herbicide directly over crops to kill weeds and
certain biotech crops more easily fight off damaging pests. 
    In its brief Monday, the Center for Food Safety said the
current intellectual property environment related to transgenic
crops has spurred a substantial privatization and concentration
of the world's seed supply that has resulted in 10 multinational
corporations holding approximately 65 percent of commercial seed
for major crops.  
    Last year a group of organic and family farmers sued
Monsanto over similar issues, saying the pervasiveness of
genetically modified crops elevates the risk of contamination of
their crops with patented GMO traits, and raises the risk they
will be sued by Monsanto for patent infringement. Their suit
challenged the validity of Monsanto transgenic patents and
sought pre-emptive court protection from lawsuits that might be
brought by Monsanto if its biotech traits were found in their
fields.
    U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald, for the Southern
District of New York, threw out the case and criticized the
groups for a "transparent effort to create a controversy where
none exists. The plaintiffs appealed, and a hearing in the case
- Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association vs. Monsanto - is
scheduled before the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in
Washington on Jan. 10.

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