Seasonal Reverse and Updates

The Jura ridge, morning run, 23 May 2013 Photo: PK Read

The Jura ridge, morning run, 23 May 2013
Photo: PK Read

I took the picture above on my run yesterday morning, 23 May. Usually around this time of year I can pull out the warm-weather running gear, shorts and a T-shirt, but yesterday I was still in long running tights and a jacket. Why? Because it was unseasonably chilly, and snow was predicted. The pictures below illustrate the next 24 hours after the first photo. So, since the season seems to be moving in reverse, I thought I’d use today to update a couple of my regular topics.

Dusting of evening snow, 23 May 2013 Photo: PK Read

Dusting of evening snow, 23 May 2013
Photo: PK Read

Update 1: Slippery Elvers

The prices for elvers, or American glass eels, aren’t quite as astronomical as they were last year in Maine (one of only two US states to issue elver fishing licences, the other is South Carolina), but they are high enough that the gold rush atmosphere is still feverish.The eel bounty of 2012-2013 is credited with boosting the economy of a state in which has seen some hard times.

This is one situation where the connection between local economics and environmental impact is clearly outlined.

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which oversees fishing regulations for the Eastern Seaboard completed a benchmark study assessing the stocks of the American eel. Although the eels migrate from a northern limit in Greenland down to a southern limit in French Guiana, all American eels in this range are considered as belonging to a single population. And as outlined by the ASMFC, the population is currently depleted.

According to an article in the Washington Post this week, “The eel management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was scheduled to vote on proposed new regulations for glass, yellow and silver eel fisheries from Maine to Florida. But after a daylong discussion, the board instead decided to delay a vote until August and form a working group to gather more information about the glass eels, which are baby eels known as elvers. Options that were under consideration for Maine’s elver fishery included keeping the status quo, closing the fishery or setting a catch quota — or a combination thereof.”

Elvers have rescued some fishermen from financial ruin. Many local fishermen in Maine are opposed to further regulations, even as some admit that the boon can’t last.

The American eel population was once so robust that the small transparent elvers created a ‘wall of glass’ in their native rivers. My feeling is that increased efforts in education and collaboration between regulators and impacted fisheries would be the first step toward ensuring that the once abundant American eel can rebound.

The 2013 elver season ends 31 May, in one week.


ASMFC benchmark studyAmerican Eel Benchmark Stock Assessment

Washington Post articleRegulators postpone new rules for Maine’s elver fishery

Boston Globa articleEel fishing has been a boon to many in Maine by Jenifer B. McKim

Previous posts here, here, here and here

Snow on the Jura ridge, 24 May Photo: PK Read

Snow on the Jura ridge, 24 May
Photo: PK Read

 Update 2: Vernon Hugh Bowman (farmer) vs. Monsanto
In a previous post, I talked about the case of Bowman, an Indiana farmer who ran afoul of seed giant Monsanto. The case went through several courts, and this year, it was argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s been a closely watched process to see whether the Supreme Court’s decision would include other patented self-replicated technologies (DNA molecules, nanotechnologies, etc.) as well as Monsanto’s soybean product, Roundup.
It’s a longish scenario, and you can check my post or the articles below for details. Basically, Bowman bought discarded seeds from a grain elevator under the assumption they would contain many discarded Roundup seeds. He then planted these seeds, harvested them (his assumption had been correct, and he had been able to use Roundup weedkiller on the soybeans without destroying them), and he replanted the results of his harvest for eight seasons. Monsanto sued him for patent infringement.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor Monsanto, but kept the decision narrow, focusing only the specifics of the case at hand rather than the larger patent discussion.
From a New York Times article: “Bowman’s lawyers argued that Monsanto’s patent rights stopped with the sale of the first crop of beans instead of extending to each new crop soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weed-killer.
Justice Kagan disagreed. “Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article,” she said. “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for such conduct.”

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety, said the ruling was wrong. “The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers,” Kimbrell said. “The court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds’ reproduction to farmers, rather than nature.”

But a soybean growers’ association said it was the correct decision. “The Supreme Court has ensured that America’s soybean farmers, of which Mr. Bowman is one, can continue to rely on the technological innovation that has pushed American agriculture to the forefront of the effort to feed a global population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050,” said Danny Murphy, president of the American Soybean Association.

This is such a complex discussion, too long for this post, but for the moment I leave it with these thoughts:

For the moment, whether or not one sides with Monsanto (and the US Supreme Court) on this argument depends less on what one thinks of Mr. Bowman’s case and his individual actions, and more on one’s views in terms of the notion of patenting living organisms, structuring agricultural practices to fit intellectual property laws that cover these patents, and to what extent one thinks that patenting is the best way of fostering innovation.


US Supreme Court decisionBowman vs. Monsanto No. 11-796

New York Times articleSupreme Court Supports Monsanto in Seed-Replication Case by Adam Liptak

Huffingtonpost article (AP) – Supreme Court Rules For Monsanto In Patent Case by Jesse J. Holland

Daily Finance articleBowman v. Monsanto: The Price We All Pay for Roundup Ready Seeds by Eamon Murphy

The CERN globe (Geneva, Switzerland), spring flowers in the front, snowy Jura range in the background - 24 May Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe (Geneva, Switzerland), spring flowers in the front, snowy Jura range in the background – 24 May
Photo: PK Read

Staking Territory 1

Image: 123rf

I’m always interested in the way creatures find to mark their territory, the variations in what can be considered grounds for competition. Physically marking territory for hunting by using scents; territory for mating by using struts, plumage or howls; fencing and barbed wire for farming. Staking territory to gain an advantage is probably almost as old as life.

When it comes to humans, we have invented systems for staking out the territory not just of where we are, but what we think. We call our thoughts intellectual property and we claim that property using patent and copyright law.

There’s a discussion over territory that’s both physical and intellectual that’s going on right now in the U.S. Supreme Court. On one side is a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, who planted soybeans he purchased from the Monsanto company. They were Roundup Ready soybeans, which are engineered to be resistant to weedkiller. In the 15 years since its introduction, the Roundup system has grown to comprise 90% of all soy grown on U.S. soil.

When farmers buy Roundup Ready seeds, they sign agreements that they will not plant the seeds from the original plant for a new crop. The 2nd generation seeds contain the same engineering as the parent seeds, and each plant provides up to 80 new seeds. Most farmers comply. Mr. Bowman did not. He planted the 2nd generation seeds, and when Monsanto sued him for breach of contract, he went to court. And lost. He appealed, and lost again. Now the case is in front of the Supreme Court, and Mr. Bowman is appealing with the assistance of a large lawyerly contingent.

Their argument is that the Monsanto patent only extends as far as the seed generation that was sold and planted. Farmers have been saving seeds from one year to replant the next for millennia – it’s called agriculture. To limit the right to do so is to limit human culture by limiting choices to those products made available by a very few companies.

Monsanto doesn’t agree. The company spends vast amounts of money on research and development. If it can’t recoup that investment by selling its products, there is little incentive to develop new and useful technologies. Many business leaders and economists agree. “Our case is the template for a broader discussion,” said David Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel. “This is just really about how patent law concepts apply to tomorrow’s technologies.”

The United States has only allowed the patenting of living organisms since 1980 (Diamond v. Chakrabarty). As one article sums it up:

The difference here, some attorneys say, is that the patented item is a product of nature that regenerates on its own.

“Are they going to take nature into account? Are they going to take into account that this is what beans do?” asked Yvette Liebesman, a law professor at St. Louis University. “You can patent anything under the sun created by a human. If a plant is doing what plants do, is that something that humans have done?”Locked-garden-gate-web

Monsanto has an answer for that.

“This is not just a seed,” Snively said, “and to suggest that plants just grow themselves is preposterous.”

There have been calls recently to overhaul patent law, claims that it stifles real innovation and productivity. This is a topic I’ll explore later with regard to green issues.

For now, I will be watching Mr. Bowman and Monsanto use whatever means at their disposal to stake out their respective territories. It’s what we do.