With his mere 300 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat, Vernon Hugh Bowman said, "I'm not even big enough to be called a farmer."
Yet the 75-year-old from southwestern Indiana will face off today against the world's largest seed company, Monsanto, in a Supreme Court case that could have a huge impact on the future of genetically modified crops and also affect other fields from medical research to software.
At stake in Bowman's case is whether patents on seeds — or other things that can self-replicate — extend beyond the first generation of the products.
Monsanto says that a victory for Bowman would allow farmers to essentially save seeds from one year's crop to plant the next year, eviscerating patent protection. In Bowman's part of Indiana, it says, a single acre of soybeans can produce enough seeds to plant 26 acres the next year.
Such a ruling would "devastate innovation in biotechnology," the company wrote in its brief. "Investors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies."
The decision might also apply to live vaccines, cell lines and DNA used for research or medical treatment, as well as some types of nanotechnology.
Many organizations have filed briefs in support of Monsanto's position — universities worried about incentives for research, makers of laboratory instruments and some big farmer groups such as the American Soybean Association, which say seed patents have spurred crop improvements. The Justice Department is also supporting Monsanto's argument.
But some critics of biotechnology say a victory for Bowman could weaken what they see as a stranglehold that Monsanto and some other big biotech companies have over farmers, which they say has led to rising seed prices and the lack of high-yielding varieties that are not genetically engineered.
Patents have "given seed companies enormous power, and it's come at the detriment of farmers," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, which was an author of a brief on the side of Bowman. "Seed-saving would act as a much-needed restraint on skyrocketing biotech seed prices."
Farmers who plant seeds with Monsanto's technology must sign an agreement not to save the seeds, which means they must buy new seeds every year.
But Monsanto typically exercises no control over soybeans or corn once farmers sell their harvested crops to grain elevators, which in turn sell them for animal feed, food processing or industrial use.
Bowman said that for his main soybean crop, he honored Monsanto's agreement, buying new seeds each year containing the Roundup Ready gene, which makes the plants immune to the herbicide Roundup. That technology is very popular, used in more than 90 percent of the nation's soybeans, because it allows farmers to spray fields to kill weeds without hurting the crop.
But Bowman also planted a second soybean crop later in the growing season, after harvesting his wheat. Since that late crop was more prone to failure, he says, he did not want to pay the high price for patented seed.
So starting in 1999, he bought commodity soybeans from a grain elevator. These beans were a mixture of varieties from different farmers, but, not surprisingly, most of them were Roundup Ready. So Bowman sprayed Roundup on his late-season crop.
"All through history, we have always been allowed to go to an elevator and buy commodity grain and plant it," he said in an interview.
The courts, however, have not agreed. After Monsanto sued Bowman in 2007, a district court awarded the company more than $84,000. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which specializes in patent cases, upheld that decision. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, much to the chagrin of the biotechnology industry.