This week the Supreme Court will hear the case of farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman.
The Indiana man faces over $70,000 in fines for planting soybeans containing genes belonging to megacorporation Monsanto without legally purchasing them.
The company manufactures and subsequently patents soybean varieties known as Roundup Ready (weed and disease resistant), and farmers who use these seeds sign contracts agreeing to purchase them yearly from the company.
Monsanto largely controls the distribution of soybeans nationally and globally, a departure from past agricultural practices of local seed distribution, management and reuse. The transition of farming from a local practice to large-scale agribusiness brings with it important questions regarding the ethics of food production.
Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds produce high crop yields and will help provide large quantities of food in the face of global population growth and increasing food shortages, but these benefits come with negative consequences to individual farmers and the environment.
Should a company be able to patent a seed?
Vernon Bowman acknowledges that Monsanto’s seeds work.
They allow farmers to spray weed killer without harming the crop. It seems reasonable that the company seek compensation for this technological development, but the matter becomes more complicated when considering that their product is a genetic alteration of a global food source planted for generations in a process their patent changes.
In previous generations, farmers typically saved seeds and reused stronger varieties in future harvests. Monsanto’s patent requires farmers to dispose of seeds and repurchase from the company the following year, as the seeds remain Monsanto’s intellectual property.
The changes to this process may have long-term environmental consequences we are unable to anticipate.
Monsanto has sued many farmers aside from Bowman. Mississippian Homan McFarling faced over $300,000 in damages following a 2002 suit, which he also appealed to the Supreme Court, and Monsanto does not hesitate to prosecute farmers found using seeds that contain the company’s patented gene.
It is important to emphasize that these seeds may not be manufactured by Monsanto. Because of the seed’s widespread use, the gene has become part of many other varieties’ genetic makeups as a result of natural processes and environmental interaction.
The ability of seed varieties to change and interact illustrates the problem within Monsanto’s patent: it attempts to legally define and control an environmental process.
We must primarily question the advisability of promoting such human-altered food products in the first place, as we know little regarding the future impacts of these introduced seeds (though some predict chemically resistant superweeds and increased pesticide use).
Secondly, we must advocate for farmers and those affected by Monsanto’s seed monopoly.
What happens as global populations increase and a corporation controls many of our food sources?
It is hard to imagine Monsanto in a benevolent light given their penchant for lawsuits against low income farmers.
The outcome of this lawsuit affects not only Monsanto but also other biotech firms patenting living, mutable things.
These inventions do not remain static when released into the environment, and we must carefully consider the ramifications.
This is not to indicate that there should be no form of compensation for people who innovate within capitalism but rather to insist that profit-driven entities have no place controlling food production.
We need a system that carefully monitors the effects of these seeds, for rarely does a product produce a miracle-like weed resistance without eliciting a corresponding change in its nearby environment.
Most importantly, farmers should have a voice within the food system.
Producing a seed is one thing, providing food to people is another. If the Supreme Court sides with Monsanto, farmers will lose the right to continue farming as they did prior to the development of agribusiness, and changes to these patterns should not occur with only money as their impetus.
Meghan Holmes is a second-year graduate southern studies student from Arab, Ala. You can follow her @styrofoamcup.