About Roundup Ready® Soybeans
Is there a difference between a soybean “seed” and a “bean”?
People refer to both soybean seeds and beans, often interchangeably, because harvested soybeans can be processed either for replanting (as seed) or for sale as a commodity (for making vegetable oil, soy meal, and other products).
Are soybeans “self-replicating”?
Soybeans are sometimes referred to as “self-replicating” because each new generation of soybean is genetically identical to the seed from which it was grown. In the case of Roundup Ready® soybeans, the patented genetic trait that makes them so attractive to growers is replicated in each subsequent generation of soybeans.
But the term “self-replicating” can be confusing because growing a subsequent generation of soybeans from harvested soybean seeds requires substantial human intervention – soybean seeds must be cleaned, conditioned and carefully stored to be suitable for planting. Growers who raise soybeans must then plant, cultivate, and harvest their crops each season. Because soybeans do not simply regenerate themselves, better terms would be “readily replicated” or “easily duplicated” rather than “self-replicating.”
What are Roundup Ready® soybeans?
Roundup Ready® soybeans contain a genetic sequence that results in the soybean plant being resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum (or non-selective) herbicide effective at eliminating a wide range of undesired plants. Glyphosate is the key active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup® brand herbicides as well as numerous generic glyphosate herbicide formulations. Soybean seed containing this genetic sequence is marketed as Roundup Ready®. Farmers that choose to grow Roundup Ready® soybeans can spray glyphosate herbicides over the soybean crop to control weeds without harming the soybean crop. Monsanto developed and patented Roundup Ready® soybeans, sells Roundup Ready® soybean seed under Monsanto brands and broadly licenses the technology to other independent seed companies to incorporate into their soybean varieties.
Are Roundup Ready® soybeans safe?
Yes, food derived from authorized genetically-modified (GM) crops such as Roundup Ready® soybeans is as safe as conventional (non-GM-derived) food.
Growers have been using breeding techniques to “genetically modify” crops to improve quality and yield for thousands of years. Modern biotechnology allows plant breeders to select genes that produce beneficial traits and move them into another crop. The biotech sector is one of the most carefully regulated industries in the world. Biotech products must meet an exhaustive series of regulatory requirements to ensure environmental and human safety before they are released onto the market.
The first large acreage plantings of GM crops – herbicide tolerant soybeans and canola – took place in 1996 after successfully passing U.S. regulatory review. Since then, additional GM crops with herbicide tolerance, insect tolerance and virus resistance have been given clearance for planting and consumption. These include varieties of corn, sugar beets, squash and papaya. All of these crops have been assessed for food and feed safety in producing countries, and many more countries have approved the import of food or food ingredients that contain GM products. Hundreds of millions of meals containing food from GM crops have been consumed. There has not been a single substantiated instance of illness or harm associated with GM crops.
More information about the safety and benefits of plant biotechnology can be found at:
Monsanto’s Policies on Use of Roundup Ready® Soybeans
Why do growers who use Roundup Ready® seeds agree to purchase new seeds each year rather than save seeds from previous crops for replanting?
Like other seed companies, Monsanto requires growers who purchase its patented seeds to sign an agreement that they will use the seeds (and the patented technology they contain) only once—to plant a single crop each season, to be harvested for sale as a commodity (for processing into vegetable oil, soybean meal, or other end uses)—and not to save the seeds either to replant themselves the next season or to sell to other growers for replanting.
Why does Monsanto patent its seed?
Patent protection is designed to encourage innovation by fairly compensating inventors while also making sure useful inventions ultimately go into the public domain for free, unrestricted use after the expiration of the patent term. In the case of Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready® soybean seeds, for example, the last applicable patent on the Roundup Ready® technology will expire in 2014.
Monsanto invests some $1.5 billion per year on agricultural research and development. The results of these massive R&D expenditures include seeds that are stronger, healthier and improve yields using more environmentally-friendly farming methods. This means better profits for farmers, benefits for the environment and a more secure food supply for an increasingly hungry world. The protections provided by the patent system—and the ability to share these R&D costs with customers through technology agreements and fees—enable those investments to continue. That’s the basic bargain that enables continued investment in future innovation—whether in agriculture, medicine, or any other field of invention.
Today, on average, there are more than 275,000 growers that are licensed to purchase seed products that contain Monsanto’s trait technology in the United States. To hear a grower’s perspective on the benefits of continued agricultural innovation that this system enables, click here.
Why has Monsanto sued some growers for violating its patents on seeds?
Farmers purchasing crop seed containing Monsanto’s patented traits sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us. More than 275,000 farmers a year are licensed to buy seed under these agreements in the United States. Other seed companies also sell their seed under similar provisions. They understand the basic premise of the agreement, which is that a business must be paid for its product. The vast majority of farmers understand and appreciate our research and are willing to pay for our inventions and the value they provide. They don’t think it’s fair that some farmers don’t pay.
A very small percentage of farmers do not honor this agreement. Monsanto does become aware, through our own actions or through third-parties, of individuals who are suspected of violating our patents and agreements. (Most of the tips Monsanto gets about framers saving patented seed come from other farmers in the same community.) Where we do find violations, we are able to settle most of these cases without ever going to trial. On rare occurrences, however, we are forced to resort to lawsuits. With 146 lawsuits filed since 1997 in the United States, this averages less than 10 per year for the past 16 years. To date, only 11 cases have gone through full trial. In every one of these instances, the jury or court decided in our favor.
Whether the farmer settles right away, or the case settles during or through trial, the proceeds are donated to agriculture youth leadership initiatives.
We pursue patent infringement matters for three main reasons. First, it would be unfair to the farmers that honor their agreements to let others get away with getting it for free. Farming, like any other business, is competitive and farmers need a level playing field. Second, no business can survive without being paid for its product. Third, the loss of this revenue would hinder our ability to invest in research and development to create new products to help farmers.
What about farmers who infringe Monsanto’s patents accidentally because trace amounts of patented seeds are found in their crops?
It has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seed or traits are present in farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.
Monsanto’s longstanding policy was recently cited by a federal court in dismissing a lawsuit against Monsanto in which the plaintiffs argued that farmers risked being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement even if they did not intend to use Monsanto’s patented technology. In ruling for Monsanto, the court explained that there was “no evidence” that Monsanto had ever sued parties that did not intend to use its technology. The plaintiffs have appealed the district court’s decision dismissing their case; the court of appeals has not yet ruled. A copy of the district court’s decision is available here.
About Bowman v. Monsanto
Did Monsanto sue the grower in this case for “saving seeds” that he bought from Monsanto?
This is not a case in which a grower bought seeds from Monsanto or one of its authorized seed dealers, planted them, and then saved some of the harvest for replanting the next season. Had the grower bought the seeds within the authorized distribution channel, he would have been subject to Monsanto’s technology agreement, under which growers agree not to save any portion of their harvest for replanting. Instead, the grower went outside the authorized distribution channel and bought second-generation seeds that had already been harvested by other growers and sold to a grain elevator; he then planted those seeds to grow and sell new crops from 1999 to 2007, saving a portion to replant each season. The grower said he did so because he thought that by going outside the authorized distribution channel, he could avoid the licensing restrictions associated with seeds purchased from authorized dealers.
Would a decision in Monsanto’s favor mean growers cannot buy commodity seeds from grain elevators for planting?
Actually, buying so-called “commodity seeds” from a grain elevator for planting is not a common practice among growers. Soybeans purchased from a typical grain elevator will be of mixed varieties and have different characteristics (including different maturation schedules), which makes them generally impractical to use for replanting. A grower that wanted to replant soybeans from the prior year’s harvest would be better off planting conventional soybeans and saving some of his/her own harvest rather than paying a grain elevator for commodity beans harvested from other growers’ fields.
Moreover, sales of soybean and other crop seeds are subject to extensive federal and state regulations that make grain elevators an unlikely source of crop seed. The Federal Seed Act and its Indiana counterpart impose detailed labeling and record-keeping requirements on sellers of seeds, designed to ensure that farmers know what they are planting and that seeds can be tracked. See 7 U.S.C. §§ 1551-1611 (Federal Seed Act); Indiana Code §§ 15-15-1-32 to 43. Section 15-15-1-40 of the Indiana Code, for example, prohibits distribution of agricultural seed within Indiana without a label informing purchasers about the variety being sold and maturity information. An elevator storing commingled soybeans could not provide such information.
The grower in this case has acknowledged that his purpose in buying commodity seeds was to circumvent the terms of Monsanto’s technology agreement and avoid paying the licensing fees associated with seeds purchased from authorized dealers. Because Roundup Ready® seeds have become so widely used among growers, he knew the majority of seeds he purchased would be Roundup Ready®. In a letter his lawyers have cited to the Supreme Court, he confirmed that “[t]he commodity beans I bought turned out to be mostly R.R. [Roundup Ready®] as I had hoped.”
A decision to protect patent rights would simply affirm that growers cannot engage in a practice that is already rejected by the vast majority of law-abiding growers.
Why does patent law protect Monsanto’s rights in soybeans that were obtained from a grain elevator?
U.S. patent law gives patent-holders the exclusive right to “make, use, offer for sale, or sell” their patented invention during the limited term of the patent. Because Roundup Ready® soybeans pass the patented Roundup Ready® trait from one generation to the next, each generation of soybeans is covered by the patent (just like each printing of a copyrighted book is protected under copyright law). Someone who purchases Roundup Ready® soybeans from a grain elevator and plants them to grow a new crop of soybeans is making a version of the patented invention.
As the Court of Appeals explained: “[O]nce a grower, like Bowman, plants the commodity seeds containing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® technology and the next generation of seed develops, the grower has created a newly infringing article. … While farmers, like Bowman, may have the right to use commodity seeds as feed, or for any other conceivable use, they cannot ‘replicate’ Monsanto’s patented technology by planting it in the ground to create newly infringing genetic material, seeds, and plants.”
To use an analogy from the more familiar context of copyrighted books: You can buy a book, read it, and sell it when you’re done, but the law does not allow you to make hundreds of copies of a book and set up your own bookstore.
If the law allowed growers to replant second-generation seeds to create new crops, they could essentially create their own infinite supply of the patented seeds in competition with Monsanto and the other agricultural biotechnology companies who invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually to develop and market them. These principles are extremely important to continued innovation in all industries, especially those involving easily duplicated technologies.
Besides transgenic seeds, what other easily duplicated technologies would be affected by the ruling?
Easily duplicated or so-called “self-replicating” technologies are being used or developed in many industries. In the United States’ brief to the Supreme Court, the Obama Administration has cautioned that a ruling against Monsanto “could also affect the enforcement of patents for man-made cell lines, DNA molecules, nano-technologies, organic computers, and other technologies that involve self-replicating features.”
Some of the parties supporting Bowman in the case have filed briefs in the Supreme Court arguing that patent protection is unnecessary to prevent unauthorized reproduction of Monsanto’s patented soybeans because Monsanto could add a “terminator gene” to them so the patented features cannot be passed from one generation of soybeans to the next. Why doesn’t Monsanto do that?
Monsanto has never developed or commercialized a so-called “terminator gene” or sterile seed product. Acknowledging many of the concerns of small landholder farmers and NGOs, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize such technology in food crops and we stand firmly by this commitment.
Monsanto’s letter setting forth its commitment on so-called “terminator” technology is available here.
This term the Supreme Court will also be deciding another biotechnology-related case, Association for Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics Inc. What effect will that decision have on the Bowman case – or on Monsanto’s seed technology patents?
The Myriad case is not expected to have any effect on Bowman or Monsanto’s seed technology patents, as the legal issues in the two cases are distinct. The question in Myriad is whether DNA isolated from human cells can be patented. In Bowman, by contrast, there is no dispute that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® biotechnology is patentable. While the parties in Myriad dispute whether isolated DNA is an unpatentable product of nature, rather than a patentable human invention, the parties in Bowman agree that Monsanto’s biotechnology does not naturally occur and that it is patentable. (The patentability of genetically modified organisms was first recognized by the Supreme Court more than 30 years ago in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, where the Court held that patent protection was available for bacteria that had been genetically modified to break down crude oil so they could be used to clean up oil spills.) The dispute in Bowman is instead over the scope of Monsanto’s rights under patent law and whether its licenses permit others to intentionally make Roundup Ready® soybeans without its permission.