Agribusiness giant Monsanto is back in court against seed-saving farmers, this time against 75-year-old Vernon Hugh Bowman of Indiana. Bowman was fined $84 456 for patent infringement after using a cheap mix of seeds bought from a neighbour which included seeds from Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready GMO variety. He has since won on appeal, but now faces Monsanto’s lawyer, former Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman at the Supreme Court, a fight which by all accounts isn’t going well for his side.

This suit alleges that Bowman infringed on their patents, while he’s arguing that since multiple generations have passed, the patent has been “exhausted”. He bought a cheap mix, late in the season for a second crop (once common, before GMO seeds hit the market) from a neighbour’s grain elevator. While he reasoned that some would be ‘Roundup Ready’, it’s hard to tell what benefits that would have granted without knowing how much of the grain in question would simply shrivel and die when sprayed.

Lawsuits over patented genetics have become quite common over the past few years. According to one study by the Center for Food Safety, there have been over 400 similar suits from Monsanto, a name now infamous for these types of tactics. Some, like (now famous) Percy Schmeiser, “stole” the genes via pollen carried onto their fields by the wind. To this end, Monsanto employs a force of private investigators, notorious for snooping around fields to look for illicit genetics, commonly known as the “seed police“. In Brazil right now, Monsanto is in court attempting to extend patent protection for Roundup Ready soy to 2014 (in line with the US), which expired in 2010 after two decades.

Cases like this give a clear picture of the intentions behind genetically modified foods. Rather than improving crops, these genes act like tiny flags, planted to claim genetic territory. Both through patent laws and genetic alterations which leave further generations of seed sterile (“terminator seeds”), corporations like Monsanto are using them to gain ownership of crops. Under this new regime, even the poorest farmers must pay for entirely new seed every year, imposing, in effect, a global, per-plant tax on agriculture.

There’s more than a little irony in the way that advocates of GMO foods insist genetic modification has been going on since the dawn of civilization. While selecting and saving the best seed from successive generations is a basic part of crop domestication (the very definition of agriculture), these methods and their genetic legacy are now under serious threat, largely because of GMO and hybrid seed. In America, Roundup Ready soy already makes up over 90% of all soy grown, with GMO cotton and corn well above 70%. Where India once had an almost uncountable number of rice varieties (estimates range into the hundreds of thousands), bred for centuries to be precisely attuned to local ecological and culinary needs, most are vanishing or have already disappeared thanks to the spread of industrialized farming and standardized seed genetics. This process has led to the loss of countless crop varieties – a loss of thousands of years worth of carefully cultivated genetics, in the name of a few genes added via laboratories.

In theory, the technology could be used for achieving better yields, drought-tolerance or nutrition. In practice, it’s been primarily used to increase crop tolerance for Roundup, an herbicide also sold by Monsanto. This is one of many ways that GMO crops are engineered to fit into a wider system of industrialized farming. Their standardized genetics allow for quick mechanical harvesting, they’re bred to withstand (and require) massive doses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and they produce the kind of incredibly consistent product required for the indutrial processing of our supermarket foods. Economically, these technologies require very large farms to repay the vast capital costs (tractors, combines etc), which has led to the widespread dispossession of small farmers in both the First and Third Worlds. The combined effect has been to leave a large amount of the world’s agriculture under the control of corporations like Con-Agra, ADM, Dow and Monsanto.

“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?” – Chief Justice John Robert

By framing the issue as one of “property” Monsanto is setting itself up as the victim. Left unmentioned is the total redefinition of “ownership” required to construct this absurd argument. Even digital “piracy” requires a conscious effort to make copies, but genetic data copies itself (making seeds just about the stupidest conceivable place to hide trade secrets). In this case, though, neither logic nor biology matter – this is about control. Like all “intellectual property”, these laws amount to little more than a back-handed attempt at legislating monopolies via lawsuit.

Why would anybody spend money to engineer better seeds if they knew their work would be shared? That’s a question to ask hundreds of generations of ancestors – without whom we wouldn’t have a single domesticated crop today. These genetics have been ‘open source’ since the Neolithic, only to be privatized within our own lifetimes, through an agreement of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations. Those of us who actually grow or eat the food in question have not been consulted, and instead left to pay the price.

No matter what the court decides, it’s pretty clear who’s really stealing the soy.