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Biotech The Courts Science

Monsanto's 'Terminator' Seeds Set To Make a Comeback 284

Posted by Soulskill
from the i'll-be-back dept.
ananyo writes "Monsanto and other biotechnology firms could be looking to bring back 'terminator' seed technology. The seeds are genetically engineered so that crops grown from them produce sterile seed. They prompted such an outcry that, as Slashdot noted, Monsanto's chief executive pledged not to commercialize them. But a case in the U.S. Supreme Court could allow farmers to plant the progeny of GM seeds rather than buying new seeds from Monsanto, making the technology attractive to biotech companies again. Some environmentalists also see 'terminator' seeds as a way of avoiding GM crops contaminating organic/non-GM crops." Reader 9gezegen adds that Monsanto is getting support, oddly, from parts of the software industry. From the NY Times: "BSA/The Software Alliance, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, said in a brief that a decision against Monsanto might 'facilitate software piracy on a broad scale' because software can be easily replicated. But it also said that a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file." The case was heard today; here is a transcript (PDF), and a clear explanation of what the case is about.
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Monsanto's 'Terminator' Seeds Set To Make a Comeback

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  • I Can't Believe This (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@nOspAM.gmail.com> on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @06:37PM (#42949567) Journal

    Monsanto’s reaction is that Bowman’s use of the commodity seeds plainly violates its patent. From its vantage point, Bowman might have been free to use the seeds he bought from Monsanto (on the theory that Monsanto’s patent rights for those seeds were exhausted by its sale of them), but Monsanto has never sold the seeds that Bowman bought and planted; Monsanto does not, for example, sell seeds to grain elevators. Because Monsanto has never sold those particular seeds, Bowman’s use of them to create new seeds infringes its patent as clearly as if Bowman had made a new light bulb copying Edison’s light-bulb patent.

    So it has come to this: they are equivocating planting seeds with reverse engineering a light bulb.

    For another thing, Monsanto’s technology agreement (signed by all farmers who purchase Roundup Ready seeds) includes provisions that prohibit Bowman’s activities. Among other things, those agreements prohibit any planting of progeny seed; the only permitted use of soybean seeds grown from Roundup Ready seeds is sale for food and the like. If the Court rules against Monsanto on the basic exhaustion question, it then must confront the controversial question (crucial to, among others, the software industry) of the enforceability of license agreements that govern the rights of users of IP-infused products. On that question, the United States (which firmly supports Monsanto on the central exhaustion question) argues that the conceded sale makes any subsequent licensing restrictions invalid as to those seeds and their progeny; not surprisingly, amici like the Business Software Alliance contest that idea.

    Great, you're free to have those agreements but Bowman didn't sign it. Chase down the guy(s) that put your grain into that elevator and sue the living shit out of them. Then make sure all your current customers know that they're legally culpable for what a grain elevator does with your intellectual property. I'll be sure to remind everyone that Monsanto seed can result in ruination if they find their way back into the soil. Then we'll see how your sales do, mmkay?

  • by ArhcAngel (247594) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @06:48PM (#42949711)
    First define "unwanted" and then tell me how you determine them without them actually happening? Let's say for instance they cross pollinate with another crop and sterilize that crop as well. Which in turn cross pollinates ad nauseum until there are no fertile seeds. Far fetched perhaps but not unthinkable.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:03PM (#42949911)

    Many crops, like corn, commonly use hybrid varieties. These varieties exhibit 'hybrid vigor', which is a result of being heterozygous - they have one set of chromosomes from parent A and the other from parent B, so for all traits they have both an A and a B gene (AB). Replanting hybrid seeds would result in plants of three types (AA, AB, BB), unfortunately the AA and BB plants are usually very inbred and have low crop yields. You can do even better yields with a double-cross, which further decreases the effectiveness of replanting.

    So conventional corn farmers haven't been saving seeds to replant since the the 1930's. 'Terminator' corn therefore wouldn't be much of a change.

  • Re:Good. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by crath (80215) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:05PM (#42949925) Homepage

    It can also be used to prevent the spread of "engineered" genes to wild plants and crops in nearby fields, and it can eliminate many plant-patent lawsuits.

    This assertion flies in the face of common sense; pollen from this seed will float through the air and contaminate non-engineered fields and now those farmers will also have a percentage of their crop that produces sterile seed. This time, lawsuits will flow in the opposite direction: farmers who replant seed will sue Monsanto due to reduced germination rates and reduced yields in future years.

  • BSA (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:15PM (#42950047)

    I don't see how they can equate biological replication with software:

    BSA/The Software Alliance, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, said in a brief that a decision against Monsanto might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software can be easily replicated. But it also said that a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file.

    Software isn't self replicating, a human you have to explicitly make a copy of it to get it to replicate. That's completely different than seeds that naturally replicate themselves and that replication is why you plant them in the first place. Someone could take one copy of software and install it on multiple computers, but it's not the software that's doing the replicating, it's the human.

    And even if they stretch and claim that installing a program multiple times is the same as a growing plant self-replicating the seed it grew from, then there's no reason a decision against Monsanto couldn't be made narrow enough to apply only to living plants.

  • by WaffleMonster (969671) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:17PM (#42950075)

    "that allowed Bowman to use Roundup indiscriminately to kill weeds without any risk of harming the soybean crop. "

    Oh great.. what about the risk to humans who eat this shit? Are people round-up ready?
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=weed-whacking-herbicide-p [scientificamerican.com]

    I keep thinking the answer to this is not biotech but robotech...how hard can it be to create an army of roombas that kill weeds? Some hyperspectral cameras, pattern recognition and burners or pullers. It has got to be possible to engineer something workable and cost effective.

    Anyway here is my delimma... if Monsanto wins they will be happy which will mean I will be sad.

    If the farmers win they will be happy which means we all get to eat even more shit "indiscriminately" laced with roundup.

    It seems I loose either way.

  • by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:37PM (#42950333)

    Negative: If the gene causing infertility is transmitted via pollen, then farmers that try to produce an heirloom seed crop near a field planted with a Monsanto variety would be screwed since their seed crop could end up infertile.

    This is exactly what will happen, and so Monsanto will put and end to many farmers' current practice of saving part of this years crop as next year's seed--since their seed yield will be reduced they negatively impact their future yield due to a percentage of the seed being sterile.

    Doesn't this seem like it's a single plot twist away from eliminating the ability to grow any major crop and causing the collapse of civilization as famine sweeps the globe?

  • by xiando (770382) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @08:40PM (#42950981) Homepage Journal

    the FDA

    Your FDA is a corrupt joke with a revolving door between it and major players like Monsanto. Monsanto basically work periods "part-time" at the FDA where they rubber-stamp their own products.

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @09:38PM (#42951499)

    This doesn't stop until all food is proprietary. I think this fact is where the discussion should start.

    Agreed.

    This is a dangerous road to go down, and there is really no need to go down it.

    We need the courts or congress to just tell Monsanto that their rights to the seed extinguished upon the bag of seed leaving their factory. As far as terminator seed goes, I suspect the market will take care of that. Farmers just won't buy it.

  • by budgenator (254554) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @10:33PM (#42951933) Journal

    Actually it does work that way, under the uniform commercial code [wikipedia.org] if you buy something that was stolen, from a business that normally sells those good, the seller is liable not the purchaser. I learned that by watching a case being argued in court; a marina traded a boat to a sign company in exchange for services rendered, the marina failed to inform the bank of the sale of the boat to have it removed from their floor-plan loan, the bank then sued the sign company for the boat and lost because the sign company had no reason to believe that a profession boat seller was selling stolen boats.
    Likewise why would a farmer assume that an elevator whose business is selling seeds and feed be seller stolen seed?

  • by Demonantis (1340557) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @11:00PM (#42952113)
    You should also mention that Monsanto makes round up. The round up ready was a way for them to sell more pesticide. They are making money from all farmers.

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