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.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

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 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    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/​H​Q​Y​rvq