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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

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News,Science and Technology

Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 17

Supreme Court's gene patent ruling was overdue

It seems obvious that a company shouldn't hold a patent on something that the human body produces. Proprietary patents, after all, protect the exclusive rights to make, use or sell a creation or invention — not something that occurs in nature.

Yet some 30 years ago, the U.S. government started issuing human gene patents to companies that do biomedical research. But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on what should have been apparent all these years. Justices rightly said that human genes cannot be "owned" or patented.

That's a victory for health care consumers. They will have more access to genetic and other tests at lower cost. And it's good for medical research, because scientists can conduct studies on genes without fear of being sued.

At the same time, the court ruled that companies can continue to patent a type of synthetic DNA that goes beyond simply isolating genes. The distinction can help companies protect their research and development investments.

The case involved a suit against Utah-based Myriad Genetics Inc., which was first to isolate the genes that have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Because of the patents Myriad held on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, it was the only company that could offer tests for them. American Civil Liberties Union lawyers brought the suit challenging that monopoly on behalf of doctors, researchers and cancer patients.

Fortunately for patients, the high court said that gene patents of this kind are not valid. In the court's unanimous decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: "Myriad did not create anything. . . . To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention."

Last month, BRCA1 and 2 testing received national attention when actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she had a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for the gene. But because they hold gene patents, biotech firms like Myriad have had monopolies on some genetic tests and have controlled the prices for those tests. Breast and ovarian cancer screening can cost more than $3,000, and some insurers won't cover it for women with an average risk for the gene mutation. But now that the gene patent is invalid, other companies can offer the tests — often at much lower cost.

Though it was done for decades, it was never right for a company to have a monopoly over something created naturally by the human body. The court made a wise decision on behalf of millions who will benefit from more affordable, accessible medical tests and individually targeted treatments.

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Rochester Post-Bulletin, June 14

Your business ruined, but you can't sue

Imagine that you are a farmer who grows certified organic corn and soybeans, which are fed to milk cows to produce organic milk that's sold to grocery stores and farmers markets. It's a labor-intensive enterprise that offers profits and non-monetary rewards from knowing that you are producing food for a specific segment of the population.

Disaster strikes when the genetically modified grain grown in a neighbor's field cross-contaminates your crop. The market you depend on is lost and your reputation sullied. The cross-contamination was accidental — GMO seed was carried from one field to the next by birds, rodents or insects.

What is your legal recourse?

There is none.

Monsanto, the multinational corporation that owns patents on GMO products, has been aggressive in protecting its seed patent rights. It has sued several farmers who planted their seeds without permission. Since your crop contains GMO genes, they could sue you for accidentally using their technology without permission.

The issue of accidental GMO contamination motivated a group of organic farmers, non-GMO users and seed suppliers to bring a lawsuit against Monsanto in New York court. The plaintiffs lost the case and appealed to the three-person Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The judges ruled that the plaintiffs had no right to sue.

The reasoning the judges used to make their decision is a head-scratcher. The judges ruled the plaintiffs can't file suit against Monsanto over possible GMO contamination "because Monsanto has made binding assurances that it will not take legal action against growers whose crops might inadvertently contain traces of Monsanto biotech genes."

Never mind that your business is ruined — you can't sue for losses because Monsanto has agreed not to sue you for the problems its products caused.

It's pretzel logic at best and an example of cow-towing to a mammoth corporation.

Monsanto has been in the news a lot lately. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its GMO patent rights in a court case involving an Indiana farmer who planted Monsanto soybeans without permission. Earlier this month, GMO wheat was found in an Oregon field. The wheat was part of a Monsanto research effort that ended a decade ago when the U.S. government refused to approve the product for commercial use. The denial, in part, came about because European Union nations refused to allow GMO wheat imports. That decision meant U.S. wheat producers would lose a large and lucrative market. The recent discovery is at best upsetting to foreign buyers.

The plaintiffs in the lost case say they gained some ground, even while losing some.

"We're encouraged by the court's determination that Monsanto does not have the right to sue farmers for trace contamination," said Jim Gerritsen, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "However, the farmers went to court seeking justice not only about contamination, but also the larger question of the validity of Monsanto's patents. Justice has not been served."

Indeed, it has not.

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St. Cloud Times, June 16

CapX move protects landowners

A Minnesota Supreme Court ruling and a Legislature decision have given landowners in the path of the CapX 2020 power line project reason to celebrate.

CapX is a joint initiative of 11 utilities in Minnesota and the surrounding region to expand the electric transmission grid. Under the CapX plan, about 700 miles of new transmission lines will be built in phases, including one from Fargo, N.D., to St. Cloud, spanning about 210 miles and affecting landowners in its path.

The CapX utilities offered to provide a one-time easement payment to property owners who host power lines, with property owners retaining ownership of the land and the ability to use the land around transmission structures. The utilities' main interest was acquiring the amount of land necessary to build and operate a transmission line and not acquiring more land than is necessary for that purpose, according to CapX 2020. The amount of land needed was no small space. The single-pole transmission lines will be 140-170 feet tall and poles are 800-1,000 feet apart. Typically, a 150-foot right-of-way is required.

That's a big change to a rural landowner.

As a result, the Legislature in May changed the state's 1973 Buy the Farm law, which allows landowners along the route of a high-voltage transmission line to force the utility to buy their entire property, rather than just an easement.

On the heels of legislative action, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in May that landowners who chose the Buy the Farm option are entitled to additional compensation for relocation expenses and the cost of buying a comparable property. That means landowners with pending and future claims against the utilities will see some additional money.

CapX started as an effort by the state's largest transmission owners — including cooperatives, municipals and investor-owned utilities — to assess the system and projected growth in customer demand for electricity through 2020. CapX officials said the two rulings mean the cost of this project and future transmission line projects will increase.

Nevertheless, the changes put some definitions into law and provide some deadlines for the power companies to take action.

The Legislature and Supreme Court did the right thing in protecting landowners' rights. It was a smart move by the Legislature to update the Buy the Farm law, and it was the right decision by the Supreme Court to rule in favor of landowners.

We congratulate landowners for battling the big utility companies and standing their ground. The two decisions are a fair approach to something as important as taking people's property. The Supreme Court ruling gives a clear line to be followed — one that can't be nibbled away at by the utilities.

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