Science in Society Archive

I-SIS miniseries - Hidden Lights at the Earth Summit, Sept 2002

The official World Summit on Sustainable Development has failed by all accounts, which is hardly surprising. But all is not lost. This miniseries brings you some of the many highlights overlooked by the mainstream media.

  1. Africa Unites Against GM to Opt for Self-sufficiency
  2. Green Revolution Pioneer Supports Small Farmers
  3. Canadian Farmers Against Corporate Serfdom
  4. Ethiopia to Feed Herself
  5. Launching Convention on Knowledge at Earth Summit

Canadian Farmers Against Corporate Serfdom

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho caught up with Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser at the Earth Summit. He tells her why he's fighting Monsanto and other corporate giants for his right to plant crops of his choice and to protect the future of agriculture. And he is no longer alone.

"This year is the first that I did not plant canola," said Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer sued by Monsanto for patent-infringement when his fields became contaminated by the company's GM canola planted by his neighbour. To everyone's astonishment, the judge ruled against Schmeiser, and ordered him to pay Monsanto the profits from his canola fields as well as court fees. He appealed, and the case was heard in May 2002, but the decision is still pending. "If I plant canola, all the profits will still go to Monsanto according to the judgement. Because of the patent laws, the company owns any crop that has been contaminated by GM genes."

What were the levels of contamination in Schmeiser's fields? "Monsanto claimed it was 98%. They claimed they sent someone to steal samples from my seeds and tested them." Schmeiser said, "But the seeds presented in court were clearly not mine, for they were complete clean of chaff, whereas my seeds were not."

When Schmeiser tested his own fields, he found that only two out of nine fields remained uncontaminated. Other fields had 2 to 8% contamination except for the one right next to the neighbour's, which had 64% contamination. An additional factor that may have contributed to the high level of contamination is that another neighbour admitted to having hauled GM seeds over his field without cover.

The judge ruled that even though two of his fields were not contaminated, there was a finite 'probability of contamination', and so the profits from the uncontaminated fields had to go to Monsanto all the same.

"The patent law is above farmer's rights or plant breeders' privileges." He told the audience at a teach-in. "Monsanto is getting farmers to sign away all their rights in an unbelievable contract. The farmer must not use his own seed, must buy seed and chemical from Monsanto. Monsanto can send their police onto your fields for 3 years even if you grow the company's crops for only one year."

Monsanto also advertises for people to tell on their neighbours, if they have GM crops without authorisation, Schmeiser continued,

"The Monsanto police can go into your fields even when you are not at home, and you'll receive a letter from the company, which says, "we estimate you have so many hectares [of unauthorised GM crop]. Please send so many thousands of dollars. If you send this money, we probably will not mount lawsuit against you." That's not all. The company can fly over your field and spray Roundup to see if the crop dies."

Many farmers just give in. For how can a mere farmer stand up to a corporation in court?

Wasn't he himself ever tempted to quit fighting, or give up his farm? Oh no, he said, I want to leave my farm to the children, to make it possible for them to carry on farming.

Not planting canola is already a big blow to this quiet-spoken but determined farmer. He has spent years perfecting his own canola varieties by saving and replanting seeds, and now they are all contaminated. It is his life's work that has been ruined, not to mention the cost of defending himself out of his life savings. It has already cost him and his wife $200 000 so far.

That was not all that he and his wife had to put up with. "Monsanto sent people to watch us day and night during 1999 and 2000." Schmeiser recalled, "It was particularly hard on my wife. The stress was unbearable." His wife turned 70 this year, and he, 71, and they are celebrating their 50th anniversary this October.

Monsanto also tried to discredit him by getting the local seed supplier to wine and dine groups of farmers in the hope that they would spread rumours about him. "Last year they took the farmers from my own area to a holiday resort," Schmeiser said. "One farmers was offered twenty thousand dollars worth of chemicals if he would say something false against me in court."

Schmeiser's farm is by no means the only one to have been contaminated. A farmer in Alberta recently discovered Roundup tolerant canola in his fields, and Dow Agroscience, the company that supplied the seeds, told him, "the whole seed system is contaminated." When the farmer demanded a contamination test, no one would do it, not his insurance company, nor Dow Agroscience, or the grain buyer Agricore United, and not even the Department of Agriculture or Canadian Seed Growers. So Schmeiser went to test the field for him, and found 64.7% contamination. This was supposed to be a pure non-GM seed variety.

Dr. Lyle Friesen, a plant biologist in the University of Manitoba completed tests on 33 certified seed stocks and found 32 contaminated. "Some contamination was so high you could raise a crop with it." He said.

Tests on pollen flow found that wheat pollen will stay airborne for 1 hour at the minimum, which means that it could be carried huge distances depending on the wind speed. A 35mile/hour wind is not atypical. Canola pollen is lighter, and can remain airborne for 3 to 6 hours. "This makes a real mockery of separation distances of tens or even hundreds of metres," said Schmeiser.

Insurers now will not insure against contamination from your neighbour's fields, nor will they insure against your GM contaminating other farmer's fields. So the farmer is caught both ways.

Farmers are fighting for their lives and livelihoods everywhere, which is why Schmeiser has been travelling the world to tell his story.

Last year, he was in five African countries. "After I went to visit some big farmers, about 30 of them declared a non-GMO zone, and cancelled their orders of GM soya." Schmeiser recalled. "That got Monsanto against me."

When Schmeiser spoke in Parliament in Johannesburg, Wally Green from Monsanto Johannesburg was given the right to reply. "Afterwards, he said to me: "Nobody stands up to Monsanto. We are going to get you and destroy you. When you get back to Canada, we'll get you.""

Sure enough, when he got back, he found that Monsanto has brought a new case against him for $1million in 'court costs': $750 000 for their lawyers, $250 000 for 'disbursements' which included travel expenses, paying expert witnesses and $15 000 'lawyer's night entertainments'.

Included in Monsanto's claim was $30 000 paid to one of the scientists who testified against Schmeiser, Dr. Keith Downey, emeritus professor of Agricultural Canada and University of Sasakatchewan. The other scientist Dr. Ken Kirkland, also employed by Agricultural Canada, was paid $5000.

Percy Schmeiser is no longer fighting a lone battle. The organic farmers in Bruno, Saskatchewan, are suing Monsanto and Aventis for liability over contamination of their crops, and have also brought a court injunction against Monsanto's GM wheat. There are 51 test plots of GM wheat in Saskatchewan alone and hundreds of tests plots all over North Dakota, Montana and Canada, despite the fact that Monsanto has recently announced they had delayed marketing GM wheat indefinitely.

Even the Saskatchewan State Government can't find out where the test plots are. But according to Schmeiser, Agricultural Canada is involved in at least some of them. The irony is that Roundup Ready wheat already exists. It has been created by farmers who noticed how small amounts of Roundup herbicide mixed in with 2,4-D is tolerated by wheat, and have been using the mixture for years, resulting in the evolution of Roundup tolerant wheat without genetic engineering.

And there are a whole lot of things farmers know that scientists don't (see box), which is why scientists should start working with farmers in earnest.

Meanwhile Percy needs a lot of help from us. To read more about his Promethean struggles and to make a donation towards his legal costs, visit his website:

What farmers in Canada and the United States know about GM crops and scientists don't

  • Pigs in United States are not reproducing properly when fed GM soya and GM maize
  • Farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Vermont found that cows are not producing as much milk when fed on GM grain and hay, so they are advertising for non GM feed
  • They are asking: how would it affect mothers eating GM and breast-feeding their babies?
  • Farmers store GM and non-GM grains in separate bins, the non-GM bins are full of mice, whereas the GM bins are clear. (Farmers in Holland found the same, and a young Dutch student did an experiment to prove that mice definitely prefer non-GM (see Science in Society 2002, 13/14 )).
  • Geese will not eat GM canola, and will avoid the GM fields in favour of non-GM fields

Article first published 07/09/02

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