Let's start with a brief history lesson:
In 1970, your friendly neighborhood genetically-modified-crop-making corporation Monsanto created a type of herbicide called glyphosate that kills plants by essentially blocking the production of a certain enzyme. No enzyme means no growth means dead plants. For farmers, this kind of thing comes in handy for killing crop-wrecking weeds that steal nutrients and sunlight from what they actually want to grow. Needing a clever name, Monsanto dubbed the herbicide Roundup, and sales soared. One of the downsides of using it, however, was that crop rows had to be spaced out a bit in order to (a) spray the Roundup on the weeds alone; and (b) have enough space to drive the machinery used to collect the dead weeds. But that all changed in 1996 when Monsanto developed the Roundup Ready soybean system.
These soybeans were genetically engineered to be resistant to the Roundup herbicide, meaning farmers could spray to their hearts' desire on whatever they wanted without having to worry about killing their harvest in the process. Hence, crop rows were able to be planted closer to one another. Hence, less space was needed. Hence, profits soared for soybean farmers. Hence, 90% of all soybean farmers started using it (over 275,000 in all). Hence, Monsanto made a fortune on their system. (I use the word "system" because Monsanto, in their infinite wisdom, made the soybeans only resistant to the Monsanto-created herbicide; one would be worthless without the other, which means double the sales.)
But while farmers could buy the seeds, one thing Monsanto wouldn't let them do is save or re-use the seeds after harvest. One of the ways they attempted this was by engineering their seeds to be "terminator seeds," meaning they only last for one harvest; seeds grown for a second generation are sterile. On top of that they made it clear to farmers that anyone attempting to grow hand-me-down seeds would be taken to court over copyright infringement.
Enter Vernon Hugh Bowman, a farmer from Indiana who'd been using Monsanto's Roundup Ready program for his main spring crop. Bowman had an idea. He saw that every farmer around him was using the Roundup Ready seeds, and figured that the market had been so entirely flooded there was bound to be some Monsanto-made Roundup Ready run-off contamination the local grain elevator, generally where farmers buy cheap seed used to feed livestock or for milling. So he went over to the grain elevator, bought some cheap seeds, and planted a late-season fall harvest. And it worked. For the next eight years, while his normal spring harvest would always utilize the Monsanto system, his second fall harvest utilized those seeds from the initial grain elevator purchase.
But in 2007, Monsanto found out about it, took Bowman to court, and were awarded $84,456 in damages. This being the American court system, the case didn't end there, with Bowman going up the ladder all the way to the Supreme Court. The argument from his lawyer:
"If exhaustion [first-sale doctrine] is eliminated, rather, for the progeny seed, then you are taking away the ability of people to exchange these goods freely in commerce," he told the court during February oral arguments. "You have essentially a servitude on these things that are exchanged and every grain elevator who makes a sale is infringing," he said.
Without the corporate law-speak, the basic question is just how long a patent extends to? At what point do corporations no longer have control over their product? Can they force a farmer to sell their Monsanto-created crop at a specific price or be used in a specific way? Taking it to the extreme with a more universal product, if Apple sells you an iPhone, are they allowed to dictate what apps you purchase, what photos you take, what contacts you have?
The Supreme Court heard the case, listened to the arguments -- Monsanto's: "Without reasonable license restrictions prohibiting the replanting of second- and later-generation soybeans, Monsanto's ability to protect its patented technology would effectively be lost" -- and decided unanimously to side with the multi-billion dollar corporation over the 74-year-old farmer.
The case is disturbing for a number of reasons. (And no, not because the dude's 74 years old; that's just a bit of manipulation to tug on the heartstrings a bit.) First of all, it continues a trend in the current administration to let Monsanto just kind of run around hog-wild, unchecked. They already back-doored some policy in last month's spending bill that prohibits GMO-laced crops from having their production halted while the Department of Agriculture checks out a health concern, which frankly makes no sense especially when certain Roundup products may be linked to animal miscarriages.
Secondly, farmers will now be forced to change the way they've been planting crops for generations now that they have to be on the constant lookout for these unlabeled Monsanto products so as not to draw their legal ire. "That's what happens when these farmers make deals with the devil," is the cynical reaction to that complaint, but that shows a lack of understanding of how competitive markets works. Seeing as everyone's already using this high-yield/low-cost system, farmers don't really have much of a choice if they want to stay in business. (Heading over to the sporting world for a moment, it's similar to the use of steroids in professional baseball: Players didn't use steroids to give themselves an advantage; they use them because everyone else is already using them. They're just giving themselves a more level playing field.)
That said, there is a bright side to Monsanto having such a large share of the market: As is the case with any herbicide or pesticide, Darwinism is winning and Roundup-resistant weeds are popping up by the truckloads. Oh. Actually, that's not all that much of a bright side.
In the meantime, looking for some way to protest this and the various other Monsanto-related business methods? On May 25th, folks from around the world are getting together for the March Against Monsanto, wherein activists will come together to spread the word about the various disturbing goings-on in the world of genetically-modified foods. Sign up at the link to find a march happening in your neck of the woods.