Saskatchewan, Canada -- On the Great Plains of Canada, farmer Percy Schmeiser has engaged in a David v. Goliath battle which could save farmers and consumers around the world from a genetically modified food nightmare beyond anything they have experienced so far.
Farmer Schmeiser's fame in North America is guaranteed to cross the Atlantic as details of his epic tussle in Canada's Federal Court with the GM seed company Monsanto gets up steam.
Monsanto has accused the farmer of "stealing" its rape oil super-seeds. Schmeiser is counter-suing the giant American biotechnology company for £4.2 million for polluting his genetically modified (GM) free farmland without his knowledge.
"If just one farmer in Britain or Europe gets one of these Monsanto rape oil seeds that invaded my land, there'll be nobody who won't have contaminated crops in just a matter of years -- whether they like it or not," said 69-year-old Schmeiser as his legal team confronted Monsanto's lawyers in the prairie city of Saskatoon. The trial opened June 5 and is expected to last at least three weeks.
The outcome of the landmark Schmeiser v. Monsanto case could influence how much control biotechnology companies like Monsanto and Advanta -- the Canadian company which this year inadvertently distributed genetically contaminated rape oil seed in Europe -- have over the world's food supply in this century.
"Farmers here are calling it a reign of terror," said Schmeiser as he recalled the bizarre chain of events which brought him into unyielding conflict with Monsanto.
Schmeiser, who has grown oilseed rape, known as canola, on his 1,400 acres for 40 years, first detected trouble three summers ago. He sprayed a powerful Monsanto weed killer, called Roundup, around electricity poles and in ditches on the borders of his farm. The herbicide killed all the weeds except for a thin scattering of oilseed rape plants, which stubbornly refused to die.
Schmeiser had been crossbreeding his own oilseed rape for more than 30 years, saving seeds from each year's harvest to replant his fields the following season -- as farmers have done for thousands of years. Now, he wondered, had he accidentally created some kind of Frankenstein mutant? The same thing happened when he sprayed a trial strip 30 yards wide in the middle of one of his oilseed rape fields near the hamlet of Bruno, Saskatchewan. Again, some of the plants refused to die.
Schmeiser mentioned his Frankenstein plants to neighbouring farmers and next, unknown to him at first, private investigators arrived uninvited and snipped samples of his crops for DNA testing.
Some of the samples tested positive for a gene Monsanto had genetically engineered into oilseed rape to produce an entirely new high yielding variety the company christened Roundup Ready canola. The new gene, taken from a bacterium, enabled Roundup Ready canola to survive Monsanto's flagship Roundup weedkiller.
North American farmers were deeply impressed by the Monsanto breakthrough: Roundup Ready canola guaranteed increased profit margins because there was no longer any need for expensive herbicides. "Cleaner fields, higher yields," went the marketing slogan. In Canada some 20,000 farmers use the genetically modified rapeseed.
But Monsanto, whose 210-acre complex near St. Louis, Missouri is reputed to be the biggest biotechnology research centre in the world, needed to recover the huge investment -- estimated at some £250 million over ten years -- it had made into developing Roundup Ready canola.
The company therefore patented the new gene and required farmers who bought the seed to sign a Technology Use Agreement preventing them from saving or re-planting the seed or selling it to others.
To get Roundup Ready canola's advantages farmers have to buy new seeds from Monsanto every year. The agreement also states they must destroy any leftover seed each year and let Monsanto inspect their fields.
Denying that the contract had Stalinist overtones, Craig Evans, Monsanto biotechnology manager, said the company has the legal right to enforce its patent because "the gene still belongs to Monsanto, and you need the Technology Agreement to use the gene." In effect, Monsanto merely "leases" its seed.
"If we can't protect intellectual property, why would we make those investments?" said Evans. "Twenty thousand growers in Canada are watching us, and I want growers to know we are serious about protecting their interests."
When Monsanto detected its gene in the samples taken from Percy Schmeiser's fields, the company threw the book at him. Monsanto launched legal proceedings, accusing him of "stealing" its seeds and infringing its patent. Monsanto demanded compensation to the entire value of Schmeiser's 1998 crop, plus punitive damages, court costs and his signature on a non-disclosure agreement requiring him to stay silent about the affair.
Monsanto considered the case criticial if it hoped to protect its patent rights.
But in Percy Schmeiser the company had picked a dangerous man as an enemy. He had been Bruno's mayor for several years, a member of the Saskatchewan provincial parliament and a hardy mountaineer who had made three attempts on Everest.
He was outraged by Monsanto's action and countersued for £4.2 million for trespass, crop contamination and defamation, accusing the company of "arrogant, high-handed and shocking conduct and callous disregard for the environment." He said he had never bought Monsanto's seed and, far from being a criminal who wanted to profit from stolen technology, he said he was a victim of that technology invading his property and crops uninvited.
If Monsanto is judged correct, the story becomes relatively simple: farmer obtains seed illegally and gets caught. Monsanto lawyer Roger Hughes told the court that it was impossible for the amount of genetically modified rapeseed found in Schmeiser's fields to have been wind driven.
But if Schmeiser is correct, it is a story with vast implications -- biotechnology runs amok, polluting farmers' fields, enslaving producers to corporate seed masters and threatening to pollute the world's biodiversity.
"This was something that was unleashed into the environment and cannot be controlled," argued Schmeiser's lawyer Terry Zakreski. "The widespread use of Monsanto's genetically modified seeds has let a genie out of a bottle." Schmeiser, who has hired an armed guard since counter-suing, said pollen from Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola is all over the place.
"The seed blows in the wind [from other farms] and cross-pollinates. I suspect it blew on to my land from a neighbour who planted Monsanto seeds so close to my fields that there wasn't even a fence line in between. Or maybe from the big clouds of canola seed I've watched blowing off loaded trucks passing my farm at harvest time."
While Schmeiser, who has become a cause célèbre in North America with several websites devoted to him, may not himself have wanted a Monsanto crop, some 75 percent of oilseed rape on the prairies is grown from GM seed.
Schmeiser describes Monsanto's product as a "noxious weed" and likes to open a pod of oilseed rape to show reporters the tiny black seeds and explain that just one plant produces as many as 10,000 of them. "It's pretty windy here in the prairies," he said drily. "I think Monsanto is trying to make an example of me because other farmers have found unwanted GM seeds on their land. But I didn't watch my grandparents clear the land and build this farm just to have the profits taken over by a big multinational corporation. A lot of these press people say to me 'If Monsanto can do this to you -- contaminate and pollute your land -- then farmers might as well quit farming.'"
The Schmeiser-Monsanto court battle has huge implications for farmers everywhere. If Monsanto wins and Westminster eventually approves the commercial growing of GM crops, Roundup Ready canola may reach European shores intentionally. It has already arrived accidentally, shipped by the Canadian company Advanta last month mixed in with a shipment of traditional seeds. Farmers across Europe tore up crops grown from the Advanta seeds, some of the work paid for with government funds.
"Never mind Microsoft," said one of Schmeiser's supporters, U.S. farmer Vincent Moye. "Monsanto is the bigger and more dangerous monopoly. We're all gonna be serfs on our own land."
As for Schmeiser, he said, "I find it all very stressful. I'd rather be fishing."
- 181 Food and Agriculture