Bowman v. Monsanto: The monopoly over the global food system

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Elsadig Elsheikh

Director

On February 21, 2013, the Supreme Court heard legal arguments on Bowman v. Monsanto in what is sure to become a landmark patent and intellectual property case in the United States. The case involves the giant seed agrichemical company Monsanto vs. a small farmer from Midwestern United States Vernon Bowman. Monsanto sued Mr. Bowman for reusing the seeds of genetically engineered soybean Roundup Ready variety, which he had purchased from Monsanto the year before. Monsanto argue that it's not fair to their company if they sell a patented product that a buyer can then use over and over again. The farmer insisted he was just doing what farmers like him have been doing for centuries (reusing seeds) to develop diverse crop varieties able to adapt to different soil types, climate challenges, and plant diseases.

However, this case is not just about industrial farmers in an industrial nation like the United States, but about the future of the global food system, and will have global repercussions. As such, it is crucial to see this case in a global context where a few multinational corporations dominating the global food production. For example, in 2007, during the peak of the global food crisis, Monsanto and Cargill controlled the cereals market, where both companies increased their profits by 45% and 60% respectively. And by 2009, only five multinational corporations, including Monsanto, own more than half of the genetically engineered seeds sold worldwide. Furthermore, Monsanto uses patent law protection in the United States and around the world (via WTO mechanism) against farmers and agricultural agencies to ensure that their "biotech products" find legal protections to monopolize and control the worldwide market of seeds and agriculture production. For instance, in a news release this month, Monsanto announces that the company will file an immediate appeal "of a recent ruling by a single judge of the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice...[to] ensure its business is not disrupted in the country." Monsanto’s argument seems to suggest that if Mr. Bowman’s case is successful, it will creates a precedent in violating the patent protection laws, as such, farmers --not only in the US but also around the world-- will emulate Mr. Bowman in saving seeds from one year to the next. Furthermore, Monsanto’s supporters (i.e. Business Software Alliances that represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, the big farmer group of the American Soybean Association, and a coalition of leading universities including the University of California, Duke University, Emory University, the University of Illinois among other) argue that a loss for the multinational giant in this case will create investments setbacks in many fields of research, such as biotechnology, live vaccines, cell lines, DNA, and computer software. 

However, the importance of this case does not lie in the narrow interpretation of patent laws but in the context of the basic and fundamental aspects of human survival such as stable food. Food security and accessibility require fair access to land, water and seeds, which are all products of nature and belong to public human heritage, and shall not rest on the hands of multinational agrochemicals. Given Monsanto’s stature as one of the world’s largest food and agricultural production companies, the decision in this case will have long-lasting socioeconomic and environmental repercussions globally. In terms of socioeconomics, plant patents will continue to offer lucrative financial gains for corporations, and consequently will hinder small farmers' ability to compete in the marketplace, or even to produce food locally. Environmentally speaking, more patent law rulings on genetically engineered seeds will farther impact the loss of biodiversity by increase chemical use in farming and monoculture practices in food production worldwide.

A victory for Monsanto in this case will mean that multinational corporations will have more control and monopoly over public human heritage that has been in the making for centuries all over the world. To that end, the Bowman v. Monsanto case is a moral one before it becomes a legal battle over narrow interpretation of the US patent laws. The morality of this case lies in the current and future serious consequences that the case’s decision will have on many aspects of human lives; particularly, on issues related to hunger, poverty and the structural crisis of the global food system. Today, in lieu of such monopoly on seeds worldwide that Monsanto and other agrochemical corporations’ seek to inflate, midsize and small farmers, and communities will continue to loss their livelihoods.

Moreover, the concerns of many who believe that corporations shouldn’t have the power of patentability accompany with unrestrained legal protection; because, it gives them enormous power to control essential parts of the human heritage such as seeds (see the CFS & SOS report on Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers).  If the Supreme Court side with Monsanto, then to argue that public goods and services --such as seeds varieties-- to remain in the public domain becomes an unlawful case.

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