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On Tuesday, Feb. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case that should concern every small farmer and rural community in America.
The case, Bowman v. Monsanto Co., boils down to whether giant agrichemical companies can dominate the U.S. seed industry and prohibit farmers from replanting seeds harvested from patented crops owned by these corporations.
Farmers have been saving, buying, replanting and breeding seeds for centuries. Yet today, with patents in hand, huge corporations are prosecuting farmers for these age-old practices. Seeds, once a shared, renewable resource, are now being privatized and monopolized.
For example, today, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market. This shift to commercialization, consolidation and control of seed ownership over the last few decades, enshrined by current patent law, has fundamentally changed farming in the United States.
Vernon Hugh Bowman's case is illustrative of the extreme scope of control that today's patent system gives to corporations. The 75-year-old Indiana farmer purchased and planted soybean seeds from a grain elevator. The seeds were sold as a mix of undifferentiated commodity seeds.
When Monsanto investigators found that some of the soybeans Bowman planted sprang from their proprietary seeds, the company sued him for patent infringement.
Bowman chose to fight. "It's a simple matter of right and wrong," he says.
Unfortunately, Bowman's struggle is not unique. Monsanto has instituted thousands of "seed piracy matters" against farmers in at least 27 states. Under financial duress, many farmers who were accused of patent infringement, even when based on insubstantial evidence, were forced to settle out of court rather than face expensive and lengthy lawsuits to defend themselves. These settlements have resulted in farmers paying Monsanto tens of millions of dollars.
The Supreme Court ought to rule in favor of Bowman so that instead of farmers becoming modern-day serfs of agrichemical companies, they can regain traditional seed rights.
Debbie Barker is the international director of Center for Food Safety and project director of Save Our Seeds. She was the senior editor of a new report by the two groups entitled "Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers." The groups have submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Vernon Bowman. Barker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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