WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to side with Monsanto Co. in its claim that an Indiana farmer violated the company’s patents on soybean seeds that are resistant to its weed-killer.
None of the justices in arguments at the high court seemed ready to endorse farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman’s argument that cheap soybeans he bought from a grain elevator are not covered by the Monsanto patents, even though most of them also were genetically modified to resist the company’s Roundup herbicide.
Chief Justice John Roberts wondered “why in the world would anybody” invest time and money on seeds if it was so easy to evade patent protection.
To protect its investment in their development, Monsanto has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown. Farmers must buy new seeds every year.
The case is being closely watched by researchers and businesses holding patents on DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.
The issue for the court is how far the patents held by the world’s largest seed company extend. More than 90 percent of American soybean farms use Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds, which first came on the market in 1996.
The 75-year-old Bowman bought the expensive seeds for his main crop of soybeans, but decided to look for something cheaper for a risky, late-season soybean planting.
He went to a grain elevator that held soybeans it typically sells for feed, milling and other uses, but not as seed.
Bowman reasoned that most of those soybeans also would be resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds too. He was right, and he repeated the practice over eight years. In 2007, Monsanto sued and won an $84,456 judgment.
Across the court’s conservative-liberal divide, justices expressed little sympathy for Bowman’s actions.