In a surprise to nobody, today the US Supreme Court handed a major victory to Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant. Vernon Bowman, a 75-year old soybean farmer, harvested genetically-modified seeds on his Indiana farm. These were not just any old seeds, and Bowman signed a contract upon purchase agreeing not to save any seeds from the harvest. Like about 90% of all soybeans in the united States, these contained the Roundup Ready® gene, making them resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also a Monsanto product.
Bowman’s lawyers argued patent exhaustion; Monsanto (and others) argued that patent protection was necessary to recoup their R&D costs, and that without patent protection “there would be no financial incentive to continue investing in technologies with easily replicable features.”
The Court agreed. Delivering the opinion for a unanimous court, Justice Kagan wrote that the doctrine of patent exhaustion “does not allow the purchaser to make new copies of the patented invention.” Farmers who buy patented seeds—that is, basically all farmers—may not reproduce them without the patent holder’s permission. This decision represents an extension of the Court’s recent attention to (and extension of) intellectual property cases. The agribusiness, biotechnology, and even software industries are breathing a collective sigh of relief—though Kagan did note that the Monsanto decision was a limited one: “We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse.”
Monsanto framed the ruling as a victory for free-enterprise and America.
"The ruling also provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to invest in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs, and allows America to keep its competitive edge,” said the company’s lawyer.
Espousing a view of pristine nature familiar to students of modern environmental history, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety saw things rather differently. “The court's ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds' reproduction to farmers, rather than nature."
Perhaps this is a good time to begin a conversation (or blog posts, or panel possibilities) on the relationship of environmental history to the emerging historiography of capitalism. To put a finer point on it, how can environmental historians contribute to understanding why it is that today’s ruling seemed so unsurprising? What can environmental history tell us about neoliberal political economy?