by Taylor Bendig
Twelve years after his first confrontation with Monsanto, Percy Schmeiser is still a man on the attack.
Speaking to a crowd of about 70 at the University of Regina on Nov. 12, the retired seed developer, former Liberal MLA, and one-time mayor of Bruno blasted the biotechnology corporation for antagonizing farmers, threatening biodiversity, and working to seize control of the world's food supply.
It was a polished presentation, and one Schmeiser has made countless times before. For the past decade, he's been in high demand on the international lecture circuit, raising the issue of genetically modified foods throughout North America and the world. The venues have ranged from college auditoriums to the Russian Federal Assembly, but his story always starts at the same point: a canola field in central Saskatchewan, during 1998.
That was the year that the multinational life-sciences firm Monsanto laid a patent-infringement lawsuit against Schmeiser and his wife, claiming that they had grown the company's chemical-resistant, genetically-modified (GM) canola without authorization. The accusation, Schmeiser said, came as a total surprise.
“When they laid the lawsuit, we didn't even know (there were) such things as GMOs (genetically modified organisms),” he told Ink. The Schmeisers denied intentionally planting Mosnanto's seeds, believing they'd blown in from a neighbour's field, and countered that the company had contaminated the disease-resistant canola they'd been developing.
Six years of legal action followed, during which Schmeiser appealed his case to both the Canadian Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. During the proceedings, Schmeiser challenged Monsanto's right to patent genetic material, making it the first case in Canadian history to deal with the issue of genetic ownership.
“We said that no individual, no corporation should have the right to put a patent on the future of life – basically, anything that came from a seed,” explained Schmeiser.
To his disappointment, three successive decisions came down in favour of Monsanto. The Supreme Court's 2004 decision upheld the corporation's right to patent its custom-engineered genes under the Patent Act, declaring that “moral concerns about whether it is right to manipulate genetics” were a matter for parliament to debate. Though the Court freed Schmeiser from financial liability, claiming he had not benefited by growing Monsanto's seeds, the canola strain he’d been developing – now mixed with the GM variety – was turned over to Monsanto.
A year later, however, the legal struggle swung in Schmesier's favour. When Monsanto's GM canola again turned up in one his fields – now devoted to developing high-yielding mustard – the company was ordered by Saskatoon small claims court to pay the costs of removing the canola plants by hand, he said.
“That was a major victory ... for farmers around the world,”because it established corporate liability for the spread of GMOs, said Schmeiser.But the farmer-turned-campaigner has since moved past simply trying to hold biotechnology companies to account for their products, and has begun condemning genetically-modified foods, and the business practices surrounding them, altogether. Though he criticizes Monsanto for forcing farmers into oppressive contracts, and alleges its GM canola has contaminated and ruined organic crops, the heart of his argument is an attack on the company's motives.
“(Genetic engineering) was never, ever meant for increased yields or more nutrition ... it was to get control of the seed supply, and then you could control the food supply,” leading to enormous profits, he said.
Monstanto's rebuttal takes the form of a web page devoted entirely to the Saskatchewan farmer, declaring that “the truth is Percy Schmeiser is not a hero. He’s simply a patent infringer who knows how to tell a good story.” The company holds that Schmeiser “knowingly planted (GM) seed in his field without permission or license.” That claim is backed up by the Supreme Court ruling – which stated that he and his wife “actively cultivated canola containing the patented invention as part of their business operations” – and denied by Schmeiser, who argues the Court disregarded studies showing his crop to be almost totally free of GM plants.
The only matter both sides seem to agree on is the potential of genetically-modified crops to change how the world's food is supplied. As Schmeiser, ending his lecture with a plea for the audience to learn more about the issue, put it: “What we do today in allowing GM (crops) will not only affect us, but will affect generations to come.”
Photo: Taylor Bendig. During his Nov. 12 lecture at the U of R, Percy Schmeiser holds up a copy of the contract signed by farmers who grow Monsanto's GM crops.