Science in Society Archive

Schmeiser’s Battle for the Seed

What makes a farmer from a small rural community in Saskatchewan stand up to Monsanto? And possibly, win? Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Percy Schmeiser, now in his early seventies, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered Canadian farmer from the small rural community of Bruno some 80km east of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, never dreamt he would be catapulted to the status of a contemporary folk- hero. He had been farming for 40 years when he was taken to court by biotech giant Monsanto in August 1998. The company claimed he had illegally planted its genetically engineered Roundup Ready canola without paying a $37-per-hectare fee for the privilege.

Schmeiser was not alone. Monsanto had accused scores of farmers of patent infringing on its genetically engineered seed. But, instead of settling out of court with Monsanto like the others, Schmeiser fought back. He had been sowing each crop with seeds saved and selected from the previous harvest for years, and had never purchased seed from Monsanto. Even so, he found more than 320 hectares of his land contaminated by Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola.

Schmeiser insisted that any Roundup Ready growing on his land was spread by wind or by grain trucks travelling on roads adjacent to his fields.

On 10 August 1999, mediation talks to settle the dispute ended in failure. The next day, Schmeiser launched a $10 million lawsuit against Monsanto, accusing the company of a variety of wrongs, including libel, trespass and contaminating his fields with Roundup Ready canola. But Schmeiser’s lawsuit against Monsanto won’t be dealt with until the original lawsuit has been resolved. Little did he know what a long, hard battle he has taken on.

It is a battle for the seed, for every farmer’s right to save and resow harvested seed, to freely share and exchange without restriction, as farmers have been doing for at least 15 000 years since agriculture began.

The trial was heard in June 2000, in the Federal Court in Saskatoon. At the trial, Monsanto presented evidence from two dozen witnesses and samplers that Schmeiser’s eight fields were all more than 90% Roundup Ready. Monsanto had performed no independent tests, however; the tests were all performed in house or by experts hired by the company.

In defence, Schmeiser presented his own farm-based evidence, that the fields ranged from nearly zero to 68% Roundup Ready, which was confirmed independently by research scientists at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. Schmeiser’s defence also contained evidence that he did not knowingly acquire Monsanto’s product, nor did he segregate the contaminated seeds for future use or spray his canola crops with Roundup

But the Federal Court ruled against Schmeiser. Justice Andrew McKay upheld the validity of Monsanto’s patented gene. In a key part of the ruling, the judge agreed a farmer can generally own the seeds or plants grown on his land if they blow in or are carried there by pollen; but this is not true in the case of genetically modified seed.

It didn’t matter how the Roundup Ready canola got to his fields. He was deemed to have infringed Monsanto patent, and was fined $15/acre x 1030 acres licence fee, plus the value of his entire crop, $105,000 (including fields that did not have any Roundup Ready canola), plus $25,000 for punitive and exemplary damages.

"Where does Monsanto’s rights end and mine begin?" Percy Schmeiser asked. He refused to abide by the judgement, and launched an appeal, which was heard in May 2002 in Saskatoon.

Unfortunately, all three judges ruled against him yet again. By this time, he and Louise, his wife of 50 years, had already spent $ 200 000 in legal fees. He had ceased to plant canola, for any canola crop he planted would belong to Monsanto.

Monsanto had kept up a constant campaign of harassment and intimidation all through the trial in 1999 and 2000. And in 2001, Monsanto brought a new case against Schmeiser for $1 million in ‘court costs’: $750 000 for their lawyers, $250 000 for ‘disbursements’ which included travel expenses, payments for expert witnesses and $15 000 ‘lawyer’s night entertainments’.

Undaunted, Percy Schmeiser took his case to the Supreme court, and in May 2003, when I caught up with him at the Biodevastation 7 meeting held in Monsanto’s hometown St. Louis, Missouri, he just got the good news that he has won his right to be heard in the Supreme Court. There were loud cheers in the hall.

Percy Schmeiser has been tireless in travelling the world to tell his story. Everywhere, farmers are fighting for their lives and livelihoods. Monsanto winning would be the very last straw, not just for farmers, for everyone. Schmeiser has come to symbolise our collective struggle against corporate serfdom. Just as independent scientists are oppressed and victimised, farmers are subject to the same or worse treatment.

Monsanto’s tactics are well known. The company gets farmers to sign away all their rights in an unbelievable technology contract. The farmer must not use his or her own seed, must buy seed and chemicals from Monsanto. Monsanto can send inspectors onto your fields for three years even if you grow the company’s crops for only one year.

Monsanto also openly advertises for people to tell on their neighbours if they are suspected of having GM crops without licence. The company’s representatives can trespass onto your fields even when you are not at home, or fly over your field and spray Roundup to see if the crop dies.

Immediately after Monsanto had obtained its judgement against Percy Schmeiser, the company had declared war on all Saskatchewan farmers. Schmeiser received hundreds of phone calls from farmers who have been contacted by Monsanto representatives and received demand letters saying that they have unauthorised GM crops growing in their fields and must pay so many thousands of dollars to avoid lawsuit. Many of the farmers who called Schmeiser were in the same circumstances: they never bought any seed from Monsanto or signed any contract.

But things may be turning Schmeiser’s (and our) way at long last.

In June 2002, a report from the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee said that the Patent Act should be amended to permit farmers to save and sow seeds from patented plants such as genetically engineered (GE) crops.

It also said that farmers who find GE plants growing in their fields through "the adventitious spreading of patented seed or patented genetic material or the insemination of an animal by a patented animal" should be considered as innocent bystanders and not be liable to prosecution.

While biotechnology developments are patentable, the report said the holder does not have "the right to market or even use the invention. This is because some applications of the technology may pose risks to human or animal health or to the environment, challenge the capacity of current approaches to protecting health and the environment and or raise other serious social and ethical questions that must be addressed."

The report suggests that the farmer be allowed to use the seed of a GE crop or the offspring of a GE animal for his or her own use but not for commercial purposes.

Better yet, in December 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the genetically engineered Harvard oncomouse is not patentable (see "Canada rejects patents on higher forms of life ", ISIS Report, March 2003 ). This opens the door to revoking patents on GM seeds, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. This could be the last nudge to get GM crops off our globe.

Article first published 07/07/03

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