The Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 19 in "Bowman v. Monsanto Co.," a landmark court battle that has pitted farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman against the international agriculture corporation over the issue of seed patents. In anticipation, the Center for Food Safety and the Save Our Seeds campaigning groups released a report Tuesday detailing similar cases, titled "Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers."
According to the report, Monsanto has alleged seed patent infringement in 144 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in at least 27 U.S. states as of January of 2013. Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta together hold 53 percent of the global commercial seed market, which the report says has led to price increases for seeds -- between 1995 and 2011, the average cost of planting one acre of soybeans rose 325 percent and corn seed prices went up 259 percent.
Seed patents are a type of biological patent, which are legally protected inventions or discoveries in biology. In the case of Monsanto and other major corporations, that often means patents on genetically modified seeds. In recent years, these and other companies have taken farmers to court for alleged seed patent infringement -- meaning they planted seeds without paying for them.
The issue gets murky when you consider that if a farmer plants legally purchased seeds, then replanted seeds culled from the resulting crop, he is committing what some companies consider a crime.
In the case of "Bowman v. Monsanto Co.," Bowman allegedly replanted second-generation seeds that had been purchased legally from a licensed Monsanto distributor instead of buying new seeds. Monsanto claims that in doing so, Bowman was essentially stealing its product. Monsanto has won battles in several lower courts.
Monsanto argues that its patents protect its business interests and "provide a motivation for spending millions of dollars on research and development of hardier, disease-resistant seeds that can boost food yields," The Guardian writes.
But Bill Freese, an author of the report and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, says in a press release that claims that the patents create better crops are hogwash.
"Most major new crop varieties developed throughout the 20th century owe their origin to publicly funded agricultural research and breeding,” Freese writes.
Crop diversity has gone down dramatically in recent years, which some attribute to the emergence of agricultural mega companies. The report notes that 86 percent of corn, 88 percent of cotton and 93 percent of soybeans farmed in the U.S. are currently genetically-engineered strains.
Read the full report here (PDF).