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Friday, February 15, 2013

Should Companies Own Patent Rights to Life

Should companies be allowed to own perpetual patent rights to life? No, obviously not. That is exactly what is at stake in the Supreme Court case, Bowman v Monsanto, scheduled for arguments on February 19th, 2013. Monsanto, is a company which holds patents on self-replicating technologies related to bio-engineered seeds. The seeds were designed to be herbicide-resistant, and Monsanto has a strict policy preventing farmers from saving seeds for future use, or harvesting seeds for subsequent uses. Vernon Bowman, is a farmer who purchased the original seeds, but planted them with a mix of unmarked grain seeds. The result of which culminated in a new variety of crop, which contained the genetically-modified resistance to herbicide.

As Bowman points out, many farmers supplement crops with unmarked grain, as a cost saving measure. Bowman still purchases original seeds each year from Monsanto, but has refused his hybrid grain seed in conjunction with the Monsanto seed. The company claims this is a violation of its patent rights, because the second-generation grain, contains the genetic modifications it owns the patent on. Bowman claims the second-generation seeds are not covered by Monsanto's patents because they are not the original seeds.

I can see both sides of the argument here, but the truth is, should a 13 Billion dollar a year mega-corporation like Monsanto, be allowed to own the patent rights to life? I could understand owning the rights to the original seeds, but once those seeds are used, they no longer own the rights, because the seeds are consumed. Any attempt to claim ownership over second-generation seeds, seems like a greedy overreach, by a Corporation. Bowman, wanting to supplement his crop with less expensive seed, seems like a reasonable and productive way of producing viable crops at reasonable cost; Furthermore, the cheaper Bowman is able to produce his crop, the less expensive it would be to purchase crop from his farm, thereby lowering the cost of food.

It doesn't appear Bowman was trying to rip off Monsanto's product, but instead was making a rational and realistic business decision related to his own farm. As Bowman pointed out in court records, the price of Monsanto seed was $4.50 in 1996 per bag, and had ballooned to $17.50 per bag by 2009(Reuters, 2013). The reason for this cost increase, is fairly clear; the patenting system has favored the rights of corporations over the rights of farmers and citizens, leading to a handful of companies who hold a monopoly over the agricultural system in the United States.

This case has wider implications for the American people, because it essentially would allow corporations to own the patents to life, in perpetuity, leading our entire food supply to be controlled by a few mega corporations, and stifling the ability of small business growers or personal growers to grow crops for themselves and local communities. As seeds intermingle and the genetic modifications spread naturally to other crops, the original patent for one seed, would thereby be extended to all other crops carrying the modifications, even when those crops were infected involuntarily. This sets a Precedent for Corporations to own life itself: Where will the line be drawn then?

I think as the currently configured Supreme Court has shown over the last 8 years, the chances of the American people being protected, and big business monopolies being rejected, as very slim. Remember Citizens United, where Corporations are allowed unlimited access to financing political elections; Thereby, literally controlling the flow of information in an election and opening the door to fraud, bribery, international interference, and corruption. It think this is a dangerous time for us all, and we may not be able to rely on the Supreme Court to stand up and protect our constitutional rights. We can hope for the best, but based on the track record of the Supreme Court, we should prepare for the worst.


Carey, G. (2013, February). U.S. Agriculture wary as Monsanto heads to Supreme Court. Retrieved from