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.
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
First it was heat and drought in Russia. Then it was heat and too much rain in parts of the American Corn Belt. Extreme weather this year has sent grain prices soaring, jolting commodities markets and setting off fears of tight supplies that could eventually hit consumers’ wallets.
In the latest market lurch, corn prices dropped in early October, then soared anew, in response to changing assessments by the federal government of grain supplies and coming harvests.
The sudden movements in commodities markets are expected to have little immediate effect on the prices of corn flakes and bread in the grocery store, although American consumers are likely to see some modest price increases for meat, poultry and dairy products.
But experts warn that the impact could be much greater if next year’s harvest disappoints and if 2011 grain harvests in the Southern Hemisphere also fall short of the current robust expectations.
“We can live with high commodity prices for a period without seeing much impact at the retail level, but if that persists for several months or a couple of years, then it eventually has to get passed on” to consumers, said Darrel Good, an emeritus professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois.
SAN DIEGO — In a laboratory where almost all the test tubes look green, the tools of modern biotechnology are being applied to lowly pond scum.
Foreign genes are being spliced into algae and native genes are being tweaked.
Different strains of algae are pitted against one another in survival-of-the-fittest contests in an effort to accelerate the evolution of fast-growing, hardy strains.
The goal is nothing less than to create superalgae, highly efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils that can be sent to a refinery and made into diesel or jet fuel.
“We’ve probably engineered over 4,000 strains,” said Mike Mendez, a co-founder and vice president for technology at Sapphire Energy, the owner of the laboratory. “My whole goal here at Sapphire is to domesticate algae, to make it a crop.”
Local production is the key to gradually moving the state away from imported fuel
The state’s quest for energy independence took a step forward with Hawaiian Electric Co. receiving bids from 10 companies seeking to supply the utility with biofuel produced locally to burn in its power plants.
There are a number of potential biofuel feedstocks that can be produced in Hawaii, including:
» Sugar cane
» Invasive trees
» Waste products
HECO said it would begin buying the renewable fuel over the next five years, starting with small amounts and gradually expanding its intake as the fledgling biofuel industry matures in Hawaii.
"We are pleased with the strong response," said HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg.
The deadline for companies to submit bids was Friday, and HECO is now evaluating the proposals. The names of the companies will not be made public until the winning bid or bids are announced.
SKARA, Sweden — Johan Bergstrom, a blond and boyish man of 31, who farms here with his father, reached into the dark, soft soil and extricated a tennis-ball-size potato, holding it gently so as not to snap off any of a half-dozen white shoots that were growing out of the potato’s eyes. He advised against tasting the potato, whose dulcet name Amflora belies its harsh flavor, a result of genetic jiggling that has made it almost pure starch.
The potato, the first genetically engineered organism to be allowed in the European Union in more than a decade, was planted on 16 acres of land on the fringes of this town in southwestern Sweden, after a quarter-century of bureaucratic wrangling.