Monsanto has long targeted individual farmers and small companies for lawsuits concerning the misuse of its patented seeds. Although detrimental to farmer’s freedom of choice and finances regarding disputes with the GM giant, strict seed
patents are also important for safeguarding the global biotechnology market and food security.
Monsanto, which was recently acquired by the pharmaceutical company Bayer, was an American agricultural biotechnology company and a major producer of genetically modified crops. It is famous for the production and sale of Roundup Ready
seeds, which are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, allowing for it to be sprayed on crops without harming them.
Monsanto has a long history of lawsuits, filing them against both farmers and companies, as well as being the target of some themselves. This streak of court cases began in 1969, with Monsanto’s losing a lawsuit against Rohm and Haas for
patent infringement, as Monsanto had fraudulently obtained said patent.
Nonetheless, a report by the Centre for Food Safety, named ‘Seed Giants versus US farmers’, showed that the company has filed for 142 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses for seed-patent violations, taking 11 to trial and
winning each case.
These lawsuits are highly controversial, with the biotechnology giant being repeatedly criticised for making over $23 million from targeting individuals and small businesses. The lawsuits often revolve around the same issues: Monsanto’s
strict patent rules and their infringement by farmers who purchase its seeds.
When selling its seeds, Monsanto makes farmers sign extensive contracts; agreeing to grow crops from the seeds, but not to save them and replant them following growing seasons. This is comparable to purchasing a DVD and making copies of it
to re-sell (as you have likely seen in that notorious anti-piracy advertisement).
Monsanto’s contract is to ensure that farmers continue to purchase seeds for every growing season. Debbie Barker, a co-author of the aforementioned report, expresses her disapproval of these contracts, saying that ‘corporations did not
create seeds, [...] a resource that is vital to survival and that historically has been in the public domain.’
‘Monsanto has filed for 142 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses for seed-patent violations, taking 11 to trial and winning each case.’
Important lawsuits and court cases
A case that shaped the future of genetic engineering of crops and their patents was in 2013, when Monsanto sued Hugh Bowman, a 75-year old soybean farmer from Indiana. Bowman purchased bean seeds from a grain elevator (a facility that
stores and sells grains) which were meant for animal consumption, and hence lower seed quality.
The beans he purchased were a mix of normal seeds and seeds harvested from a Roundup Ready field, and thus contained the Roundup trait engineered by Monsanto. Bowman then used glyphosate herbicides to determine which were Roundup crops and
re-planted them for eight consequent growing seasons.
As regrowing the Roundup crops breached his contract with Monsanto, Bowman argued that in his case, ‘Patent Exhaustion’ applied; meaning that as he had purchased the seeds from a reseller without restrictions on seed use, the Monsanto
patent did not apply, and hence he was allowed to make copies of the seeds. However, the court agreed with Monsanto that if copying a patented product were to be allowed, it would lose value after its first sale, and thus Monsanto won the
This case was of significance, since if Bowman had won, Research and Development biotechnology companies would have been put at risk. Millions of dollars invested into products by such companies may have started to not yield returns, and
consequently other areas of research would have been harmed due to less funding and security of returns. Hereafter, Monsanto continues to sue any farmer that breaks patent agreements by saving and replanting seeds.
Recently, another lawsuit by the Brazilian farmer’s union against Monsanto was won by the biotechnology giant, earning it a whopping $7.7 billion. This money was equivalent to the royalties (i.e. the fees that one pays for using a patented
product) that Monsanto claims from farmers once the crops are harvested, corresponding to 5% of the revenues made from sales.
This was another significant case, as Monsanto had previously won every patent lawsuit in the past 20 years in the USA, but had not done as well in South American countries, where farmers’ rights are more strongly protected.
Most recently (at the beginning of 2019), India’s supreme court ruled that Monsanto can claim patents over GM cotton seeds, which it had previously been unable to do. This has been beneficial for international companies looking to invest in
GM crops and plants in India, as they were previously restraining from investments due to fear of losing out.
The ruling also benefits Indian farmers, as they are now able to keep up with overseas competitors due to better technologies. This is, granted, only beneficial if they do not end up on the wrong side of patent disagreements.
‘Monsanto continues to sue any farmer that breaks patent agreements by saving and replanting seeds.’
Implications for biotechnology companies and farmers
As the global population is projected to grow by over a third by 2050, and the world food production demand increases by up to 70%, the need for high-productivity and resistant crops becomes pivotal. To meet this need, GM crops are
fundamental, and with this, the development of better and more resilient seeds by biotechnology companies.
If Monsanto were to loosen its grip of control over the behaviour of farmers, investments into biotech companies that work on the development of these seeds would plummet, putting global food security, and the livelihoods of farmers who now
rely on these seeds, at risk.
However, Monsanto’s numerous victories in their lawsuits have had a strong negative impact on farmers. Farmers who replant Monsanto seeds, often in genuine ignorance of the strict terms, are severely punished. This is not to mention the
farmers that have been penalised by Monsanto when their crops were unknowingly and unintentionally cross-pollinated with Monsanto-patented pollen by the wind.
The considerable royalties, although they come along with increased revenue due to the improved crops and reduced losses, are a great financial burden to farmers. Growing GM crops can even be unfavourable for farmers, as it has been
estimated that US farmers lose $300 million per year from corn alone due to European markers not wanting to purchase GM products.
With GM seeds becoming ever growingly dominant, namely 93% of soybeans and 86% of corn in the US being GM, as well as over half of the global seed market being controlled by three major companies (Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta), it becomes
ever growingly hard for farmers to choose anything but these companies as providers.
Overall, it can be argued that Montanto’s victories in its patent-related lawsuits are beneficial to farmers, biotech companies, and the environment.
It benefits farmers, who get better seeds, resulting in less waste and increased yield. It benefits biotechnology companies, who get more investments into their research for climate-resistance and nutritionally-rich crops. Ultimately, it
benefits the environment, as GM seeds require less space and chemical inputs, reducing the need for intensive agriculture.
However, the ethics behind a multi-billion dollar company suing often innocent and unlucky farmers out of their life earnings for the sake of upholding a principle remain to be debated.