Roy Exum: America's Soybean Wars

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

For about as long as I can remember my family has grown soy beans. There isn't much romantic about it, other than the cost of tractor fuel, moisture content, and yield-per-acre. As a matter of fact, farmers all across the South know about rotating crops and holding onto enough money from the harvest to buy seed the next spring.

But now comes a 75-year-old farmer from southwest Indiana who may put an entirely new face on the industry. Within the next week or two, Vernon Hugh Bowman, who is just enough bankrupt to not give a hoot or holler, is taking the huge agri-giant Monsanto before the Supreme Court to argue -- of all things -- who holds the rights to the seeds planted in the ground.

The farmer alleges it is his ground, and he does all the work, but Monsanto says it has spent many millions of dollars to create a "Roundup Ready" soybean seed and therefore says it is entitled to hold the patent rights on the genetically-altered seed. Because Monsanto has those rights, farmers must promise to plant new Roundup Ready seeds each year rather than use part of last year's crop as seed at a significant savings.

Roundup, of course, is a herbicide that is popularly used on farms -- and household gardens all across America -- to fight weeds. So when the "Johnson grass" and other unwanted leechers spring up like mad in a young soybean field, the farmer can spray Roundup and kill the weeds but not the genetically-treated soybeans. The seed is a Godsend and increases the yield per acre but the sticking point is to whom does the "yield" rightfully belong?

Farmer Bowman got in trouble when he bought what's  called "junk seed" for a second planting some years back. He used Round Up Ready seed originally but, with a forgiving autumn in the wind, he bought some leftover "junk grain" from a local grain dealer and planted it exactly where he had harvested his first crop in hopes of a second yield before the first frost. But Monsanto claimed that now up to 90 percent of the soybeans in Indiana contain the genes that the Monsanto labs perfected -- one generation spawning the next -- and that Bowman's act was dishonest.

According to an article on the Guardian news site, Farmer Bowman says his fight isn't a "David vs. Goliath" battle but, "instead, I think of it in terms of right and wrong." He said, "We've always had the right to go to the grain elevator, buy some 'junk seed,' and use it for seed if you so desire." Remember, too, Farmer Bowman takes the risk -- come drought or whatever.

Thus far Monsanto has very vigorously defended its stance, earning a $85,000 judgment against Bowman in a lower court. But the farmer, who went bankrupt over an unrelated land deal, decided not to "play dead" against the mega-giant corporation and soon the Supreme Court will decide who actually controls the rights to the seeds planted in God's earth.

Many side with Bowman -- on principle alone. For instance, if you buy a box of Cheerios, you decide whether your children or the birds eat them. That's why many claim Monsanto's rights should end at the purchase -- that a smart farmer buys genetic seed and pays the "lab fees" in increased cost per bushel over the price of unaltered beans. They feel you buy a product at the agreed price and that a promise has no part in the payment.

Monsanto is claiming a Bowman victory could "jeopardize some of the most innovative biotechnical research in the country" while those in the farmer's camp cite sorely-needed reform in commercial farming. The small farms of America are dwindling at an alarming rate and are being so muscled by corporations that anti-trust actions are warranted.

According to the, three companies now control over 50 percent of the global seed market. Some say Monsanto isn't as worried about the research as much as the strict business model, which demands any buyer to buy new seed with every planting and -- get this -- Monsanto actually controls the soybean market as a result.

Make no mistake, it is a perplexing case and only a fool cannot foresee the parallels in almost any business in the years to come. We can only wonder how the Supreme Court will rule. Like the saying goes, "Anyone can count the seeds in an apple ... but only God can count the apples in  a seed."

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