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Editor's Weekly: Small farmer confronts Big Ag at the Supreme Court

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2013 - Dear Beaconites -- In the heartfelt, high stakes debate over how to feed the world and protect the planet, critics of Big Agriculture could not have found a more appealing standard bearer than Vernon Hugh Bowman. The Indiana farmer was at the Supreme Court this week to defend his right to plant soybeans against Monsanto's claim that it owns the genetic engineering the soybeans contain.

In a photo taken by Beacon Washington correspondent Rob Koenig, Bowman looked the part of the quintessential small farmer, striding across the Supreme Court plaza with his hands tucked against the weather in the pockets of a sensible white jacket.

In an earlier interview with Beacon legal expert Bill Freivogel, Bowman sounded the part as well. "It wasn't coming after me that made me mad," he said, "it was coming after me for no reason. ... I just said they can run over me, but I'm not getting out of the road."

Bowman has lived the part for decades on the farm where he was born 75 years ago and where he still tills 300 acres. In an age of image creation, Bowman seems to be the real thing. As Rob noted, it was a classic David and Goliath confrontation when Monsanto challenged Bowman for planting seeds engineered and patented by Monsanto to withstand application of the pesticide Round Up.

When Bowman purchases Monsanto seeds directly, he abides by the company's requirement that farmers not save and plant seeds from the crops they've grown. But in the situation in dispute, Bowman purchased seeds from a grain elevator -- seeds that carried Monsanto's patented genes. That's when the company's "seed police" showed up at Bowman's door to claim he was at fault.

For St. Louisans, the case has more than an emotional connection. Though Bowman doesn't live here, Monsanto does. Courts here frequently handle similar cases. And this dispute with St. Louis roots has national implications -- not just for farmers and plant science companies, but also for the wider world of those who depend on intellectual property rights.

Bowman may be an emotionally appealing figure, but Chief Justice John Roberts cut right to cold, hard business facts. He asked Bowman's lawyer: “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?”

That question and its implications for other fields are the reasons Monsanto's position has drawn broad support from universities, research organizations, the Justice Department and even Microsoft and Apple. All are concerned about protecting the right to earn returns off intellectual property developed with costly investment. When seen in that light, Bowman's emotionally appealing claim becomes more complicated.

Good news coverage helps you put competing claims in context. Sometimes, that context touches the heart, showing how lives depend on the issue at hand. Sometimes, that context reaches the head, explaining the logical implications of the arguments on both sides. Rarely do appeals to the heart and the head lead in such sharply contrasting directions as they did this week when a small farmer confronted Big Ag at the Supreme Court.