A Farmer Prepares for Final Battle Against Monsant
Por Stephen Leahy
The resolution of the case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser against the agribusiness-biotech giant Monsanto could have global repercussions for patent rights. The Canadian Supreme Court will hear the case in January 2004.
BROOKLIN, Canada, (Tierramérica).-
Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser will get his final chance in January 2004 to beat agribusiness and biotechnology giant Monsanto, when the Canadian Supreme Court is to issue a ruling that could affect farmers the world over.
At 72, Schmeiser has become a hero of the global anti-transgenics movement for his legal battle over Monsanto's attempts to enforce its patent rights over the genetically modified seeds the transnational company sells.
Five years ago Canadian law enforcement officials seized Schmeiser's entire canola crop (also known as rapeseed, Brassica napus) from his 1,030-acre farm in Bruno, Saskatchewan, after Monsanto filed a legal complaint.
Monsanto said Schmeiser violated their patent rights on the company's genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready canola by growing it without paying for the seed and without signing a technology use agreement.
While Schmeiser agreed some of his fields contained Monsanto's GM canola, he said they were contaminated the previous year by pollen from a neighbor's fields and by seeds that blew off trucks on their way to a nearby canola processing plant. The very tiny seeds move easily with wind, bees or birds.
In a conversation with Tierramérica, Schmeiser said he simply planted seed saved from the previous year, as has been his practice in 50 years of farming.
Careful seed selection had given him some of best yields of any farmer in his area. He was unaware that some seeds collected in 1997 contained Monsanto's proprietary genetics and as proof points out that he did not spray Roundup on his 1998 crop.
However, in 2001 a Canadian court ruled that it didn't matter how the GM seed ended up in Schmeiser's field or if he benefited from it. Simply growing and harvesting it was a violation of Monsanto's patent rights. Fines and penalties were levied for around 143,000 dollars.
Since then Monsanto has asked for nearly 716,000 dollars more to cover their court costs and has liens on all of his property and assets Schmeiser said.
"It's an absurd situation, akin to someone dumping junk on your land and then accusing you of stealing it," says Brian Helweil, agricultural expert with the non-governmental Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington.
"The outcome of the Schmeiser case will set an important precedent for other countries," says Peter Rosset, an agroecologist and co-director of FoodFirst/Institute for Food and Development Policy, an organization that promotes food as a human right.
"It would be terrible for farmers if Schmeiser loses," Rosset told Tierramérica.
The implications for agriculture worldwide will be profound, agrees Helweil.
About 61 percent of Canada's 10 million acres (four million hectares) of canola is planted in genetically modified varieties that are herbicide tolerant and used mainly to produce processed food ingredients, cooking oils, and livestock feed.
It has been a costly battle thus far, topping 214,000 dollars in legal fees. Monsanto "used every legal trick to prolong this and make it more expensive," says Schmeiser who says he has spent 140,000 dollars of his own money, the rest has come as contributions.
"When I lost that really scared the world farming community and donations started to pour in."
While a number of NGOs support his efforts, donations are made through his website and at the many speaking engagements he does around the world.
Without those, and his pension, he says he would not have considered taking his case to Canada's Supreme Court.
Despite the heavy financial costs, he says, "I'm the happiest I've been in five years about going to the Supreme Court."
"Monsanto will lose either way the case turns out," says Helweil. If Schmeiser wins, it means Monsanto cannot stop farmers from saving seeds. If he loses then Monsanto must take responsibility for its seed and the genetic contamination it is causing.
Anti-GM activists say the release of modified genetic material into the environment could harm ecosystems and human health. To date there are no conclusive studies on the impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Canadian farmers will be paying close attention when the case begins Jan. 20, says Darrin Qualman, spokesman for Canada's National Farmer's Union.
Contamination by transgenics is big problem all over western Canada, Qualman told Tierramérica.
"One farmer's fields in Swift Current (Saskatchewan) of premium non-GM canola were completely contaminated this year. An organic farmer is about to lose his organic certification for the same reason."
Monsanto has maintained the problem is limited to one or two dozen farms at most. It sends students to hand pick any of its wandering GM plants.
"There's a tremendous reluctance among farmers to report that they have unwanted GMOs in their fields," says Qualman. After Schmeiser lost in 2001, no one is clear about what farmers' rights and responsibilities are and there is a fear that "somehow you might owe Monsanto money".
"Monsanto has built a culture of fear here", agrees Schmeiser.
One of Monsanto's tactics he says is to send threatening letters to farmers saying they might be illegally growing the company's GM crops. If they pay the company 10,000 or 20,000 dollars, then they won't prosecute. "It's bioterrorism," says the farmer.
Two Saskatchewan organic farmers are fighting back. They filed a class action lawsuit in 2002 against Monsanto Co. and Aventis SA on behalf of the more than 1,000 organic farmers whose farms represent about one million acres (405,700 hectares) in the province.
The legal action is seeking compensation because they have lost their markets for organic canola because of contamination by the GM canola and pollen.
The lawsuit is also aimed at halting Monsanto's plans to introduce GM wheat in the region in 2004 or 2005.
Organic farmers aren't the only ones upset about GM wheat.
An unlikely coalition of more than 200 anti-GM activist groups, small and large farmers, grain handling and food processing companies as well as the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) that markets all of Canada's wheat have been standing shoulder to shoulder against GM wheat over the past two years.
"The same thing that happened to canola will happen to wheat," says Schmeiser who is not an organic farmer.
"It's been very stressful but if I don't continue to fight someone else will have to."
* Stephen Leahy is a Tierramérica contributor.