Monday’s unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision for Monsanto Co. plays into the hands of the forces organizing to support Initiative 522.
But it is also an assist for researchers at Washington State University and other institutions on the frontiers of plant science.
I-522, which goes to Washington voters in November, would require all food containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled. Many consumers shy from GMOs, as the shorthand goes, despite little evidence they are harmful to humans. But it’s early yet in the introduction of this technology, and genes can persist for a long, long time, with the potential side-effects on future generations and the environment unknowable.
What is known is how incredibly valuable patented seeds can be. For Monsanto, soybeans alone generate more than $1.7 billion in revenue. More than 90 percent of all soybeans grown in the United States germinate from Roundup Ready Monsanto seed, so called because the herbicide – also made by Monsanto – will not kill those plants. The company’s share of the cotton and maize seed markets is almost as large.
A too-clever Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman, tried to work around the seed patent by planting a mix of beans intended only for feed, applying Roundup, then harvesting the surviving seeds. Bingo! Roundup Ready seed he used to grow the beans without paying Monsanto.
When the company wised up, they sued and won an $85,000 judgment. Bowman appealed, arguing the seed was only doing what seed does, and that Monsanto’s patent was “exhausted.”
Justice Elena Kagan rejected that argument, calling it the “blame-the-bean defense,” noting Bowman’s admitted work to select the seed he wanted.
It was not the first Supreme Court victory for Monsanto, and it does pretty well in Congress, too. The bill authorizing the budget sequester contained what has become known as the Monsanto Protection Act because of an overlooked provision that says the courts cannot review any regulatory action or challenge of seed permits.
The provision has outraged tea party and Occupy partisans, who are uniting to make sure the provision does in fact expire at the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30.
With its money and lobbyists, Monsanto has become ever more assertive in its claims to genetic material, proprietary and natural. Look for the company to bully its way into the anti-I-522 campaign, as it did against a similar initiative in California, where it and other opponents spent $45 million.
Meanwhile, in the Northwest, WSU continues to be a global leader in the development of new seed varieties. With the increasing pressure to commercialize taxpayer-funded research, the institution has a stake in protecting the work of its scientists. So does J.R. Simplot Co., which just announced development of a potato variety modified using only potato genes.
The debate over I-522 could be an opportunity to educate voters and consumers about the new era of plant science. Just watch out for the manure.