Many Western Pennsylvania farmers say a U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected an agricultural company’s patent on its herbicide-resistant seeds is unlikely to affect them or their crops.
The high court ruled this month in favor of Monsanto, the world’s largest seed supplier, which has a policy that prohibits farmers from saving or reusing the seeds once the crop is grown. Farmers must buy new seeds every year.
But an Indiana farmer tried to circumvent the agreement by buying less expensive soybean seed from a grain elevator typically used for feed and planting that instead. Many soybean plants grew, and he replanted those seeds.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he violated Monsanto’s patent and must pay the company a fee.
Pennsylvania growers say most farmers understand and abide by the agreements they sign with companies that have patent-protected seeds.
“We’ve been under these agreements ever since these products came out (and) been understanding of our limits,” said Richard Ebert, who co-owns Wil-Mar-Re Farms, which straddles Route 22 in New Alexandria and Blairsville, with his brother Bill.
Ebert said farmers can use seeds produced by plants grown with Monsanto seeds for animal feed but not to produce the next year’s crop.
Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said it’s an individual decision whether to buy patented seeds such as Monsanto’s, which are genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup weed killer, another Monsanto product.
“We haven’t heard any feedback from our farmers that they were concerned about the decision in this case,” O’Neill said. “I think most of them are fairly aware of the contracts they signed before they purchased any of the seed.”
Ebert said genetically modified seeds typically have a technology fee built into the price. He said a 50-pound bag of soybean seed costs about $50-$55 while a bag of corn seed would run $200-$250. A bag of soybean seeds would plant just under an acre while the corn seed would cover 2½ to 3 acres.
Genetically modified seeds have been on the market since the mid-1990s and are used by more than 90 percent of farmers growing soybeans and more than 85 percent of corn growers, O’Neill said.
Most corn and soybeans grown in Pennsylvania are used to feed livestock, but some is sold at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.
George Wherry, a Washington County farmer and member of the farm bureau’s state board of directors, said he supports the Supreme Court’s decision to protect Monsanto and its investment in providing high-quality seeds.
“We’re fortunate to have a company in this country willing to do this,” Wherry said. “It’s not at our expense as farmers trying to develop or do this. We’re not all rocket scientists. We’re tillers of the soil, really.”
Wherry said the seeds are not only resistant to weed killers but stand up to drought, so crops can survive with a minimal amount of water.
Consumer groups and organic food producers have fought Monsanto over genetically engineered farm and food issues in several settings. They lost a campaign in California last year to require labels on most genetically engineered processed foods and produce. Monsanto and other food and chemical companies spent more than $40 million to defeat the ballot measure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].