Washington, D.C.—In the case of Bowman v. Monsanto, the Supreme Court has ruled that farmers cannot legally save patented genetically modified seeds for replanting. Monsanto had sued Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman for replanting pesticide-resistant Roundup Ready soybeans, and he now owes $84,456 in damages.

The ruling came down to the court’s perspective on how such patents can be enforced. The defendant, Bowman, claimed that his action of buying Roundup Ready soybean seed, not from Monsanto, but second hand from a grain elevator, then planting that seed and saving it for subsequent harvest cycles, did not infringe on Monsanto’s patent because of the principal of “patent exhaustion.” That principle stipulates that once someone has purchased a patented product, they are free to do with it what they please.

But the court decided that planting patented crops with the intention of saving the seeds they sprout is not protected in this way. A suitable analogy might be that while one can buy a cassette tape and then give it to a friend, one cannot legally share or profit from copies of digital music, as farmers would arguably be doing by planting “copies” of Monsanto seed. Instead, farmers are required to repurchase GMO seeds every harvest cycle.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court’s official opinion that this decision does not necessarily set a precedent for every patented product that is self-replicating, as crops are, but only pertains to this specific case. The Justice felt the court needed to protect the integrity of Monsanto’s patent, writing, “If simple copying were a protected use, a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention.”

But consumer groups slammed the decision as one that widens the control of Monsanto and other companies behind genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply. “The court’s decision to give Monsanto the power to control the future harvest of America’s family farmers and our county’s food supply is deeply troubling, immoral and a very bad sign for the future of our nation’s food supply,” said Dave Murphy, executive director and founder of Food Democracy Now! in a statement. A fear in some agriculture circles is that organic or other non-genetically modified crops may become contaminated with genetically modified DNA through cross-pollination.  Monsanto, they reason, will and already has tried to sue farmers who have unintentionally plant such seeds.

 “The Supreme Court’s ruling today in the Bowman v. Monsanto case tightens the seed giant’s stranglehold on American agriculture. It will no doubt pave the way for greater use and development of genetically engineered seed products and use of toxic pesticides, such as Roundup, on our farm fields,” said Environmental Working Group general counsel Thomas Cluderay in a statement. He cited this case as a reason to place further emphases on GMO labeling so that consumers can make informed decisions.

One such labeling legislation effort was underway in Vermont at press time. On May 10, the House of Representatives in that state became the first in the United States to pass a bill requiring all GMOs to be labeled in foods. But, supporters claim that Monsanto has openly threatened to sue the state if it pursues such legislation, creating a deterrent for lawmakers wary of legal costs.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2013