The US Supreme Court is set to rule on a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in which that court ruled that the doctrine of exhaustion did not cover second-generation genetically altered crops. To make sense of this, a little background may be in order.
In 1994, Monsanto obtained a patent covering a line of “Roundup Ready” crops genetically altered to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The modification is hereditary, which is to say that 2nd-generation (and subsequent generation) seeds inherit this resistance. To avoid buying new seeds from Monsanto next year, farmers had merely to save some of this year’s crop and plant it next year. Monsanto defended against this possibility by forcing purchasers to sign an agreement promising not to replant n-generation seeds: no signature, no beans. However, farmers remained free to sell their crops on the open commodity market; almost all such crops feed either people or livestock.
So far, so good (at least for Monsanto, if not the farmers). However, upon occasion success can bite you in the ass. Monsanto’s superbeans quickly dominated the market (94% of all acres in Indiana, for example). And therein lies the rub. Monsanto seeds were so dominant that all a farmer had to do was buy a bunch of commodity soybeans, and most or all of them would be Roundup Ready, not to mention significantly cheaper than the official beans sold by Monsanto.