Everyone loves an underdog, which is why Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman received such good press.

NPR called his recent trip to the Supreme Court “a classic case of the little guy taking on the big one,” because he’s the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Monsanto, the seed company. USA Today compared the legal battle to “David vs. Goliath.”

In this telling, however, we should view the consequences should Mr. Bowman win. His effort to circumvent intellectual property rights threatens the future of modern agriculture and food production in the United States and around the world.

He may look like a little guy, but he’s fighting against the interests of little guys everywhere. Not unlike like Mr. Bowman I grow soybeans on a family farm in the American heartland. My fifth generation farming legacy has taught me the asset of legitimate investment of time and money. Building from a strong foundation pays its own rewards and my ability to purchase high yielding pest resistant seed has more benefits than just my farm’s profits. Clean air, water and ample food to feed the world’s growing population are also at the heart of this conversation.

(See related: Bowman v. Monsanto could open GM Pandora’s box)

When high technology seed came to the market place in the late 1990’s I quickly recognized the value it brought to my farm. Because of this I’m currently able to select from a broad selection of cutting edge seeds capable of adapting to my farm’s variable planting/growing challenges. Today, I’m growing more food on less land than ever before. The seed trait called into question by Mr. Bowman is the same which has allowed me to switch to no-till farming methods while using fewer chemical sprays. On a broad note the biotech seed in question has allowed Iowa to employ no-till across nearly 60% of its soybean acres. This has a direct reduction on soil erosion, leading to clean waters–an essential advantage in our part of Iowa, where rolling hills define the terrain.

 

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The genetically modified crops that we produce are safe, healthy, and beneficial tools of scientific innovation. Their high yields allow me and other American farmers to compete in world markets. A new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications says that 17.3 million global farmers (over 15 million are small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries) planted more than 420 million acres with GM crops last year, a new record.

Biotech seeds exist because seed companies pour billions of dollars into research and development. They strive to come up with higher yielding products that help farmers fight pests and weeds. Their efforts empower farmers as we grow more food and contribute to environmental sustainability.

Security and incentive

In the United States, it can take 10 years and a $100 million investment to develop a single seed trait cleared for full seed production. Intellectual property patent rights give seed companies the security and incentive to invest these millions. We can’t recycle seeds from the plants we’ve already grown. Biotech seeds may be self-regenerating products, but they’re also protected by patent.

Just as it’s against the law to pirate DVDs, computer software, and digital-music files, it’s against the law to pirate patented seeds. This principle is so broadly accepted that dozens of organizations have called on the Supreme Court to protect the integrity of patented seeds, including farm and technology groups as well as a coalition of top universities.

At the oral arguments last week, Chief Justice John Roberts made the point plainly: “Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?”

Justices of differing political persuasions appeared to agree with this sentiment: Mr. Bowman’s lawyer, reported the New York Times, received a “hostile reception.”

Experts say that it can be a mistake to read too much into oral arguments. Yet I’m hopeful that justices will issue a ruling that preserves a system of scientific and agricultural innovation–and supports the millions of “little guy” farmers whose livelihoods depends on planting the best seeds.

Mark Jackson grows soybeans and corn on a family farm in SE Iowa.  He has traveled extensively across the U.S. and around the world to learn more about soybean production.  Mark is a volunteer member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farm Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).

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