Monsanto's Supreme Court Seed Fight: What Would Woody Guthrie Think?

"A farmer is good. It's as good a job as a man can do."

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Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

I saw how my finger puts a seed down in the ground and I saw how that was hitched up, or tied up somehow, with a lady at a desk somewhere, a family packing tobacco into a barn, men riding on a ship somewhere. I saw exactly how their work traced back to me and mine to them.

--Woody Guthrie, House of Earth

It is a blessing upon this nation that Woody Guthrie's voice, the relentless voice of the poor and the powerless, is heard anew this winter in the form of a powerful book, a newly-discovered novel titled House of Earth. Edited and with an extensive introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp, Guthrie's book, written in 1947, searingly portrays the joy and sorrow of a poor farming couple living through the Dust Bowl during the Depression. And when I read it last week it naturally made me think immediately of the United States Supreme Court.

On Tuesday morning, the justices will hear oral argument in a fascinating case that would very much have interested Guthrie were he alive today. The case is styled Bowman v. Monsanto and, technically, it's a conflict over seed-planning and federal patent law. It's a story about technology and innovation and investment, about legal standards and appellate precedent and statutory intent, about the nature of nature and how the law ought to answer the basic question of who owns the rights to the seeds of planted seeds.

Bowman v. Monsanto also touches upon many of the ancient themes and struggles that animated Guthrie's life and times: the little guy against big business, the small farmer against the agricultural conglomerate; the man of the land versus the agents of commerce. This is the story of who gets the reap the benefits of the good earth. Even Guthrie wouldn't have imagined the legal, economic or bio-ethical ramifications here. But House of Earth and Bowman, coming at the same time, remind us that some conflicts in America are eternal.


SEEDS OF DOUBT

A farmer is good. It's as good a job as a man can do. Good as any man or any woman in the whole world can do. It's good because it's good and a man can be good. He can do good and he can feel like he's doing some good. And a farmer. Well, a farmer is good.

--Guthrie, House of Earth

Vernon Bowman is a 75-year-old Indiana farmer who, in 1999, came up with a bright idea to save himself a little money. He planted two crops of his soybeans on his small 300-acre farm. For the first crop, he would buy and plant a genetically-engineered brand of soybean seed--a seed especially resistant to herbicides--from one of Monsanto's licensed seed producers. The deal required Bowman to sign a contract promising not to save any of the seeds from his first-crop harvest. Bowman signed the agreement in 2002 and says he's lived up to it.

When it came time to plant his second crop of soybeans in 2000--a more risky crop because of the weather and other mercurial factors--Bowman decided to do something different, something he says local farmers had done for generations. He bought what are called "commodity seeds" from a grain elevator. Because those seeds were made of different mixtures and came from different farmers, they were cheaper. Thanks to genetic modification, and patents like Monsanto's, they were also largely resistant to herbicides.

"Mr. Bowman repeated this activity from 2000 through 2007," the court record reflects. "Unlike his first crop, [he] saved the seed harvested from his second-crop for replanting additional second-crops in later years. He also supplemented his second-crop planting supply with periodic additional purchases of commodity seed from the grain elevator." It was a good plan--until the folks at Monsanto figured out that Bowman was growing more soybeans than his authorized purchases would allow. In 2007, the giant company sued the small-time farmer.


THE PLAYING FIELD

Ella May saw long new furrows of good plowed ground and her nose smelled the roots, the syrups, the saps, the juices, not only of the ground but, too, of popping seeds with big white roots, drying stems and stalks and leaves with roots as hard as her fingernails.

--Guthrie, House of Earth

Monsanto naturally didn't get to be so big and powerful by being kind and forgiving--and farmer Bowman isn't its first target. According to the Center for Food Safety, which last week issued a new report titled Seed Giants vs U.S. Farmers, the mega company had "filed 144 lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in at least 27 different states" as of January. The company had recouped tens of millions of dollars as a result of these enforcement lawsuits--as well as settlements with farmers brought about by the mere threat of litigation.

As you'll see below, Monsanto says it is merely enforcing valid contracts, and protecting its hard-fought patents, and that it has a right to do so aggressively. However, the result of these attempts at market control, the CFS noted, is "dramatic increases in the price of seeds. From 1995-2011, the average cost to plant one acre of soybeans has risen 325 percent; for cotton prices spiked 516 percent and corn seed prices are up by 259 percent." The reason for this development is not difficult to discern. From the CFS Report (footnotes omitted):

In the last few decades, the U.S. has led a radical shift toward commercialization, consolidation, and control of seed ownership. Three agrichemical firms--Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta--now control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market. The top ten seed firms, with a majority stake owned by U.S. corporations, account for 73 percent. This shift has fundamentally changed farming in the U.S. Instead of continuing the historical tradition of farmers having full access to seeds that they have cultivated over centuries, agrichemical corporations now own the sine qua non of farming--indeed, the irreplaceable element of all food--seeds.

Many legal observers were surprised when the Supreme Court chose to take this case. Both of the lower courts had sided definitively with Monsanto. "While farmers, like Bowman, may have the right to use commodity seeds as feed, or for any other conceivable use," the Federal Circuit Court ruled unanimously, "they cannot 'replicate' Monsanto's patented technology by planting it in the ground to create newly infringing genetic material, seeds, and plants.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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