No Corporate Liability for Seed Contamination
Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser
On 29 March 2001 a Canadian judge dealt a crushing blow to Farmers' Rights
by ruling that Percy Schmeiser, a third generation Saskatchewan farmer,
must pay Monsanto thousands of dollars for violating the Gene Giant's
monopoly patent on genetically modified canola seed.
Under Canadian patent law, as in the US and many other industrialized
countries, it is illegal for farmers to re-use patented seed, or to grow
Monsanto's GM seed without signing a licensing agreement. If the Gene
Giants and US Trade Reps get their way, every nation in the world will be
forced to adopt patent laws that make seed saving illegal. The ruling
against Schmeiser establishes an even more dangerous precedent because it
means that farmers can be forced to pay royalties on GM seeds found on
their land, even if they didn't buy the seeds, or benefit from them.
Percy Schmeiser did not buy Monsanto's patented seed, nor did he obtain the
seed illegally. Pollen from genetically engineered canola seeds blew onto
his land from neighboring farms. (Percy Schmeiser's neighbors and an
estimated 40% of farmers in Western Canada grow GM canola). Monsanto's GM
canola genes invaded Schmeiser's farm without his consent. Shortly
thereafter, Monsanto's "gene police" invaded his farm and took seed samples
without his permission. Percy Schmeiser was a victim of genetic pollution
from GM crops - but the court says he must now pay Monsanto $10,000 for
licensing fees and up to $75,000 in profits from his 1998 crop. It's like
saying that Monsanto's technology is spreading a sexually transmitted
disease but everyone else has to wear a condom.
The GM canola that drifted onto Schmeiser's farm was engineered to
withstand spraying of Monsanto's proprietary weedkiller, Roundup. But
Schmeiser did not use Roundup on his canola crop. After all, if Schmeiser
had sprayed his crop, the chemical would have killed the majority of his
canola plants that were not genetically modified to tolerate the
weedkiller! Schmeiser didn't take advantage of Monsanto's GM technology,
but the court ruling says he's guilty of using the seed without a licensing
Monsanto (acquired by Pharmacia last year) is the world's premiere Biotech
Behemoth. Last week's court ruling has far-reaching implications for
farming communities around the world. Last year, Monsanto's GM seed
technology was planted on 41.6 million hectares (103 million acres)
worldwide. That means Monsanto accounted for 94% of the global area sown to
genetically modified seeds in 2000. (Total worldwide area = 44.2 million
hectares or 109.2 million acres.)
Thanks in large part to Terminator technology, the Monsanto moniker has
became synonymous with GM seeds and corporate greed. Although Monsanto
disavowed "suicide seeds" in the wake of international public protest, the
company has routinely employed Draconian measures to prevent farmers from
re-using patented seed, including the use of private police to root out
seed-saving farmers, and toll-fee hotlines to encourage rural residents to
snitch on their farm neighbors. Monsanto has threatened to "vigorously
prosecute" hundreds of cases against seed saving farmers, but Schmeiser's
was the first major case to reach the courts. Schmeiser courageously
decided to fight back and speak out against bioserfdom.
Last week's anti-farmer verdict is being hailed as a landmark victory for
Monsanto, but it's too soon for the Gene Giants to celebrate. Will the
ruling against Schmeiser unleash a new biotech backlash in the heartland?
North American farmers grew three-quarters of the world's commercial GM
crops last year, and now they're showing signs of biotech battle fatigue.
Illegal traces of Aventis' StarLink maize (unapproved for human
consumption) have disrupted grain markets and jeopardized exports. Unsold
stockpiles of US maize are at their highest level since GM crops were
commercialized. The US government announced last month that it would spend
$20 million in taxpayer money to bail out the biotech industry, by
purchasing maize seed that was contaminated with Aventis' StarLink genes.
(StarLink maize was planted on less than 0.02 percent of all US maize
cropland in 2000, but cross-pollination with other maize varieties resulted
in seed contaminated with StarLink genes.) To add insult to injury, the
federal bailout is using money that would normally go to disaster relief
With the advent of genetic engineering and exclusive monopoly patents, the
Gene Giants have abolished the farmers' fundamental rights to save and
exchange seed. Now farmers are being forced to accept liability for
genetically modified crops. How many bullets will they take for biotech?
In North America, where many farmers have embraced GM technology, there are
signs of resistance worth noting:
The National Farmers Union of Canada has called for a national moratorium
on producing, importing and distributing GM food.
A bill introduced in North Dakota (US), backed by the state's wheat
farmers, would impose a moratorium on growing genetically modified wheat -
a crop that Monsanto hopes to commercialize by 2003.
In March 2001 the National Farmers Union (US) adopted a policy supporting
a moratorium on the introduction, certification and commercialization of
genetically engineered wheat until issues of cross-pollination, liability,
commodity and seed stock segregation, and market acceptance are adequately
The Indiana (USA) House of Representatives passed a bill last month
defending the farmers' right to save seed.
Oklahoma's Secretary of Agriculture, Dennis Howard, recently commented:
"After reviewing Monsanto's 2001 Technology Agreement, I would discourage
any farmer from signing this document. Not only does this contract severely
limit the options of the producer, it also limits Monsanto's
liability...The protection of the Monsanto contract is strictly one-sided
and I would encourage producers to carefully consider this before entering
into this agreement."
A North Dakota State University economist warns that growers of GM crops
are exposing themselves to potentially huge financial risks by signing gene
technology agreements. Dwight Aakre warns that "responsibility for
providing assurance of non-contamination with GMO materials is being pushed
back to the individual producer."
Support Percy Schmeiser
Percy Schmeiser has filed a counter-suit against Monsanto, but his family
faces enormous legal costs that cannot be sustained without outside
assistance. Contributions to Schmeiser's legal defense may be sent to:
Schmeiser Defense Fund
Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce
Canada SOK 2A0
For more information about Percy Schmeiser's case, go to:
To see the 62-page decision by Canada's federal court judge Andrew MacKay
RAFI (the Rural Advancement Foundation International) is an international
civil society organization based in Canada. RAFI is dedicated to the
conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to the socially
responsible development of technologies useful to rural societies. RAFI is
concerned about the loss of agricultural biodiversity, and the impact of
intellectual property on farmers and food security.
- 181 Food and Agriculture