My enemy’s enemy…?

Recently a lot of comments on the Bowman vs. Monsanto court case have been in my social media streams. If you’ve not heard about this, it’s about a court case between a farmer and the Monsanto corporation over what you’re allowed to do with GM seed.

The simplified version is that when you buy Monsanto’s seed you undertake not to replant the seed, you sell it for feed. So next season you have to buy Monsanto’s certified seed. Bowman is a farmer who worked out that if he’s selling his GM seed to a seed elevator, why not other people too? He can’t replant his own seed, but why not buy feed seed from the elevator 95% of which will be GM and plant that without the restrictions?

One reason is that not all seed is the same. Some comes to maturity quicker than others and there are doubts about how sensible it is to replant unsorted seed. The other is that Monsanto will sue you for breaking their plant patents.

What interests me is how the cheering from the sidelines is going. Normally anti-GM and anti-Monsanto interests are allies. Here I wonder if they might be on opposite sides. The anti-Monsanto people are cheering for Bowman. They’d be foolish not to; the other side is Monsanto. But if you’re anti-GM is a Bowman win such good news?

In very simple terms it might look like a Monsanto loss is a good thing if you’re anti-GM. Monsanto make GM seeds. Killing the patent on their seeds makes a massive dent in the profitability of the GM seed products. However, it’s not that simple. GM does not all come from Monsanto. Indeed there are research units who want to produce freely available GM crops. A Monsanto win for would mean business as usual for these people, but what would a Bowman win mean?

A Bowman win would mean that all the GM seed that exists now is available for free reproduction. You buy your seed and you can keep growing it. The next generation of GM seed might be less profitable for developers but it could mean the massive spread of the GM products that exist now. It’s will become a lot harder for anti-GM protestors to argue the agriculture needs protecting from GM if most agriculture is GM. This relies on the assumption that, given the choice, farmers would prefer to grow GM seed. This is the very thing Bowman is fighting for, so it seems reasonable. It’s possible to argue that GMOs could out-compete nature and so limits are needed. It is also true that new GMOs could out-compete established GMOs, but that would be a harder line to sell to the public.

One of the frames for the Bowman vs. Monsanto battle is the battle between unrestricted uptake of GM crops and restricted uptake of GM crops. I can see anti-GM people wanting no uptake, but given the choice between limited uptake and a free-for-all I’d prefer the restrictions. I may be missing something obvious, but wouldn’t a genuinely anti-GM camp would prefer uptake to be as limited as possible too? Strangely it seems to me this is one time the blanket anti-GM campaigners would want Monsanto to win.

This doesn’t make the anti-Monsanto campaigners automatically silly. It may be a large chunk of people, like Bowman, want easier access to GM products and see Monsanto as getting in the way.

What the Bowman vs. Monsanto case is doing is killing the myth that farmers are being forced into GMOs. Bowman has already lost his case in the lower courts and is spending more money for the ability to benefit from GM crops. If a farmer is going to those lengths to get his hands on GM seed, it’s hard to see how he’s fighting against it. It doesn’t mean all farmers want GMOs either, but it does suggest the situation is more complex than adopting a blanket pro- or anti- Monsanto position. In this case the saying “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” might be mistaken.

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About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

2 thoughts on “My enemy’s enemy…?

  1. Thanks for including my post as link in yours. The thing that make this case interesting relative to other similar cases is that Bowman seems to have not actually saved his own seed. He instead bought commodity seed without having to sign a tech agreement. Most times when farmers end up in court it’s because they’ve violated the contract they’ve signed. I believe the Supreme Court wanted to hear this case in order to address the issue of patent law in regards to a product that is self replicating. Anyone wanting to read a tech agreement can see my 2011 agreement with Monsanto at http://bit.ly/HQYrvq

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