IT is a case that many anti-modern agriculture activists are watching closely: the current review by the U.S. Supreme Court of Bowman vs. Monsanto, which revolves around the farmer's right to save seed to plant for succeeding crop years.
The ruling in this case will determine to what degree companies are willing to invest in developing new plant genetics, traits and technologies in the future.
Some background: After planting his primary soybean crop with Roundup Ready seeds, John Bowman elected to cut his costs by purchasing grain from a local mill to use as seed instead of its intended purpose as feed.
Knowing that more than 90% of soybeans planted in his state of Indiana were Roundup Ready, he predicted that the seeds he planted also contained the Roundup Ready trait and proceeded to spray Roundup on his soybeans to take advantage of this trait. His guess was correct, so he followed this practice for many years, until Monsanto took Bowman to court for violating the company's licensing agreement.
Right or wrong, it's fairly obvious that someone is benefiting from Roundup Ready technology when they spray Roundup over the resistant crop. In fact, Monsanto maintains that it has prosecuted only patent offenders who benefited from the use of the company's technology and never would have sued Bowman if he would have treated his crop as non-Roundup Ready.
Judging from the line of questioning by the Supreme Court justices, this case is about more than Bowman's defense based on the principle of patent exhaustion, meaning that second-generation seeds are not protected by the patent.
Instead, it seems as if this case is more about the broader scope of identity preservation rights and how they will be handled in the future.
If so, this case comes at an unprecedented time, because identity-preserved traits are increasing at a rapid pace, and it is no longer as easy to realize when an individual is benefiting from a patent-protected trait.
With the introduction of Bt and drought resistance and many other traits in the pipeline, the simple act of planting seeds that have beneficial traits may result in immeasurable benefits to the farmer, even if the farmer has no knowledge that his seeds contain such traits.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Monsanto in this case, a precedent will be set for how farmers purchase, save and sell seeds in the future.
On the other hand, if it is found that patents are indeed exhausted, seed companies must look for alternatives to protect the time and money they invest in new genetics if they ever wish to recover their investment costs and remain in the seed business.
The two ways I can see this being accomplished are for seed companies to increase the scope of seed licensing agreements with farmers or to begin introducing "terminator" genes into seeds that will prohibit the second generation from germinating.
Farmers need to pay close attention to the details of this case as they move forward with planting as the ruling will have many implications for their future.
My hopes are that the outcome helps create the proper framework needed for companies to continue investing in technologies that help me continue to improve the efficiency with which I farm without adding undue paperwork or restrictive technological measures.
What the proper legal way forward is, though, I guess I will just have to wait and see.
*Mike Haley farms alongside his father Steve and wife Pam in Ohio, where they raise corn, soybeans, wheat and registered Simmental cattle. He is passionate about sharing information about agriculture with others. He is active in online conversations and can be found at http://haley-farms.com, http://justfarmers.biz and on Twitter @farmerhaley.