Today the US Supreme Court is considering a case which puts the country's, nay the world's food supply at risk.
This entry is posted to both my political blog and my tech blog. I apologize for the overpost, but the issue is both political and technical. It is also extremely important to the well-being of the nation.
Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75 year old farmer from Indiana, purchased some soy beans from a local granary. He planted those beans and harvested the results. Some of the beans were genetically engineered and patented by Monsanto, but he did not attempt to purchase genetically engineered beans. He didn't care. The Monsanto beans were mixed up with others.
Many people oppose the patentability of living things. Although I share their concerns, I do believe that patent protection for such innovations can be a benefit to society–as long as that patentability does not extend to naturally occurring substances or processes. Let's set that issue aside. It is very complex and deserves its own discussion.
Monsanto viewed Bowman's growing of soybeans as an attempt to infringe on their patent. The gigantic agribusiness sued, and a lower court ruled in its favor. The judgment ordered Monsanto to pay Bowman $84,000. The agricultural biotech industry compares the planting of patent protected seeds to copying protected software. But the parallel doesn't work. Copying software violates its copyright. A software patent is violated by writing new software that performs the patented activity. Seeds cannot be copyrighted because they copy themselves. Bowman could have violated Monsanto's patent by engineering a new seed which had the desired biochemical properties of the original–namely resistance to a particular herbicide.
If Monsanto get's it's way, it will have inordinate control over the nation's food supply.
The practice of monoculture is already dangerous. Most farmers have chosen to grow a single variety of a single crop. They have chosen varieties that have drought resistance, herbicide resistance, or that yield larger crops. These varieties have been bred and engineered. Before modern distribution systems, many farmers bred many different beneficial varieties, but now the top few varieties claim the vast majority of acreage. This is risky for the food supply because if that variety is particularly susceptible to a new disease, a huge amount of the world's food could be lost in one epidemic causing famine across the third world.
This case poses a threat to biodiversity in agriculture that spreads far beyond that posed by monoculture. Plants don't know the boundaries of fields or property lines. Much like Tiger Woods, they have evolved to spread their seed as far as possible. If it does spread to some unpatented crops, farmers who are not Monsanto customers would be violating its patent just be replanting their own crops. Eventually, the patented crops would overrun all other crops and monoculture would rule all.
Farmers can not violating a patent by planting seeds. That is the intended purpose of the seed. If it was a patent violation to plant patented seed, then Monsanto's customers would be violating the patent by doing so. Farmers that buy Monsanto's seed sign a contract to not replant the harvested seed, but to purchase fresh seed the next season. But that contract is only enforceable on those who sign it. It is unrelated to the patent protection granted by the USPTO.