Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case
By Robert Barnes, Saturday, February 9, 3:12 PM
In SANDBORN, Ind. — Farmer Hugh Bowman hardly looks the part of a revolutionary who stands in the way of promising new biotech discoveries and threatens Monsanto’s pursuit of new products it says will “feed the world.”
“Hell’s fire,” said the 75-year-old self-described “eccentric old bachelor,” who farms 300 acres of land passed down from his father. Bowman rested in a recliner, boots off, the tag that once held his Foster Grant reading glasses to a drugstore rack still attached, a Monsanto gimme cap perched ironically on his balding head.
“I am less than a drop in the bucket.”
Yet Bowman’s unorthodox soybean farming techniques have landed him at the center of a national battle over genetically modified crops. His legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments.
What Bowman did was to take commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s planting violated the company’s restrictions.
Those supporting Bowman hope the court uses the case, which is scheduled for oral arguments later this month, to hit the reset button on corporate domination of agribusiness and what they call Monsanto’s “legal assault” on farmers who don’t toe the line. Monsanto’s supporters say advances in health and environmental research are endangered.
And the case raises questions about the traditional role of farmers.
For instance: When a farmer grows Monsanto’s genetically modified soybean seeds, has he simply “used” the seed to create a crop to sell, or has he “made” untold replicas of Monsanto’s invention that remain subject to the company’s restrictions?
An adverse ruling, Monsanto warned the court in its brief, “would devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high research and development costs.”
“Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto states.
Bowman said Monsanto’s claim that its patent protection would be eviscerated should he win is “ridiculous.”
“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,” Bowman said. Continue reading
WASHINGTON » The Supreme Court agreed today to hear a dispute between a soybean farmer and Monsanto Co. over the company’s efforts to limit farmers’ use of its patented, genetically engineered Roundup Ready seeds.
The justices said they will hear an appeal from Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, who is trying to fend off Monsanto’s lawsuit claiming Bowman made unauthorized use of the seeds.
Monsanto’s patented soybean seeds have been genetically engineered to resist its Roundup brand herbicide. When Roundup is sprayed on a field, the product will kill the weeds without harming the crop.
The Obama administration urged the court not to take the case and warned that the outcome could affect patents involving DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies.
Monsanto has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown, ensuring that farmers have to buy new seeds every year.
Bowman used the patented seeds, but also bought cheaper soybeans from a grain elevator and used those to plant a second crop. Most of the new soybeans also were resistant to weed killers, as they initially came from herbicide-resistant seeds, too. Bowman repeated the practice over eight years. Monsanto sued when it learned what he was doing.
The company has filed lawsuits around the country to enforce its policy against saving the seeds for the future.
Bowman’s appeal was among seven new cases the court added today to its calendar for argument during the winter.
The justices also will consider whether a government’s refusal to issue a development permit can amount to “taking” private property for which the owner must be paid. Continue reading
Crops genetically modified to poison pests can deliver significant environmental benefits, according to a study spanning two decades and 1.5m square kilometres. The benefits extended to non-GM crops in neighbouring fields, researchers found.
Plants engineered to produce a bacterial toxin lethal to some insects but harmless to people were grown across more than 66m hectares around the world in 2011.
Bt cotton is one type and now makes up 95% of China’s vast plantations. Since its introduction in 1997, pesticide use has halved and the study showed this led to a doubling of natural insect predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and spiders. These killed pests not targeted by the Bt cotton, in cotton fields, but also in conventional corn, soybean and peanut fields.
“Insecticide use usually kills the natural enemies of pests and weakens the biocontrol services that they provide,” said Professor Kongming Wu at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, who led the research team. “Transgenic crops reduce insecticide use and promote the population increase of natural enemies. Therefore, we think that this is a general principle.” Continue reading
Researchers have discovered why courtship rituals – which can be all-consuming, demanding time and effort – might actually be worth it.
Attracting a mate – which can take significant effort, such as in a peacock’s show of feathers or the exhaustive rutting of stags – can produce benefits for a species in the long term, a study suggested.
Scientists have shown that animals and plants, which reproduce sexually are at a considerable advantage to those species – such as some insects and reptiles – that reproduce without a partner.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh studied sexual reproduction in tiny fruit flies to learn more about how DNA is randomly shuffled when the genes of two parents combine to create a new individual.
They found that this recombination of genetic material allows for damaging elements of DNA – which might cause disease or other potential drawbacks – to be weeded out within a few generations.
Individuals who inherit healthy genes tend to flourish and pass on their DNA to the next generation, while weaker individuals are more likely to die without reproducing. Continue reading
Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of “superweeds”, according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.
The so-called miracle crops, which were first sold in the US about 20 years ago and which are now grown in 29 countries on about 1.5bn hectares (3.7bn acres) of land, have been billed as potential solutions to food crises, climate change and soil erosion, but the assessment finds that they have not lived up to their promises.
The report claims that hunger has reached “epic proportions” since the technology was developed. Besides this, only two GM “traits” have been developed on any significant scale, despite investments of tens of billions of dollars, and benefits such as drought resistance and salt tolerance have yet to materialise on any scale.
Most worrisome, say the authors of the Global Citizens’ Report on the State of GMOs, is the greatly increased use of synthetic chemicals, used to control pests despite biotech companies’ justification that GM-engineered crops would reduce insecticide use.
In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests that previously posed only minor problems have increased 12-fold since 1997. A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat them.
Additionally, soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops, and a survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced. Continue reading
At the supermarket, most shoppers are oblivious to a battle raging within U.S. agriculture and the Obama administration’s role in it. Two thriving but opposing sectors — organics and genetically engineered crops — have been warring on the farm, in the courts and in Washington.
Organic growers say that, without safeguards, their foods will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby. The genetic engineering industry argues that its way of farming is safe and should not be restricted in order to protect organic competitors.
Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.
But in recent weeks, the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets.
The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their crops as the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama administration would protect their interests were dashed.
“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics. “These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions.” Continue reading
By Howard Dicus
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Hawaii grows more corn for seed than for eating, and the seed industry is the new sugar for Hawaii, accounting for more than a third of all farmgate revenue in the islands.
All four of the nation’s largest seed manufacturers have substantial farming operations in Hawaii now, including farms on Molokai, Kauai, Oahu and Maui. The vast majority of seed produced is corn, driven in part by farmers growing corn for ethanol on the mainland, but diversification into other seeds is under way.
Using figures from 2009 for a report released Tuesday, the National Agriculture Statistics Service and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture reported that seed farms account for more than $222 million of the more than $627 million in statewide farmgate revenue.
Total revenue is up 4% from the year before, and also represents 37% more milk farm revenue as the dairy industry regroups on the Big Island, along with smaller rebounding in cattle operations and improved revenues for bananas, basil, sweet potatoes, head cabbage and other crops.
Drought, which has been a problem for local cattle operations since 2009, caused lower revenues that year in the flower and nursery industry, which had been the largest chunk of Hawaii diversified agriculture before the advent of the local seed industry. Continue reading
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge has ordered the destruction of all genetically engineered sugar beets that seed companies planted in September.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco found that the U.S. Department of Agricultural improperly granted permission for the plantings without a detailed environmental review. White said his order will take effect Dec. 6 to give the companies time to appeal.
The companies couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in September alleging the USDA’s action violated an earlier decision by White.
The environmental groups say Monday’s ruling affects beets planted in Oregon and Arizona. The sugar beets are genetically engineered with a bacteria gene to withstand sprayings of a popular weed killer.
A study published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science, finds that widespread planting of genetically modified Bt corn throughout the Upper Midwest has suppressed populations of the European corn borer, historically one of corn’s primary pests.
The area wide suppression has dramatically reduced the estimated $1 billion in annual losses caused by the European corn borer, even on non-genetically modified corn.
Bt corn, introduced in 1996, is so named because it has been bred to produce a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills insect pests.
Corn borer moths cannot distinguish between Bt and non-Bt corn, so females lay eggs in both kinds of fields, says William Hutchison, professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota.
Once eggs hatch in Bt corn, young borer larvae feed and die within 24 to 48 hours. Because it is effective at controlling corn borers and other pests, Bt corn has been adopted on about 63 percent of all U.S. corn acres.
As a result, corn borer numbers have also declined in neighboring non-Bt fields by 28 percent to 73 percent in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, depending on historical pest abundance and level of Bt-corn adoption.
The study, the first to show a direct association between Bt corn use and an area wide reduction in corn borer abundance, documents similar declines of the pest in Iowa and Nebraska. Continue reading
By Alicia Maluafiti
Since the demise of pineapple and sugarcane, the seed industry has helped diversify Hawaii’s economy and kept important ag lands in agricultural production by investing millions of dollars into failing infrastructure such as roads, buildings and irrigation.
Not only does this ensure that those farmlands remain productive for future generations, but the investment has saved small farmers and the state from having to pay for those improvements.
While we applaud the Sierra Club for turning its attention to food security (Name in the News, Star-Advertiser, Oct. 22), the comment by Robert Harris that farmers are having difficulty finding land to farm “because it’s all being used for seed corn” is a gross misstatement.
The agricultural biotech industry, which includes seed corn research companies, operates on only 5 percent of the available prime agricultural lands in the state. Of those acres, approximately 8,000 are actively used for crop production, which conserves water and results in a smaller environmental footprint.
Recognizing the difficulty of farmers to secure land, many seed companies now collaborate with farmers to put new and displaced farmers back on agricultural land at affordable prices. Farmers large and small are growing a variety of crops side by side, and many now even supplement their income by growing seed crops. In addition, seed companies lease land to cattle ranchers, who are another important part of Hawaii’s food security picture. Continue reading