- Environment News Service 6-20-00 SASKATOON,
Saskatchewan (ENN) - On the Great Plains of Canada, farmer Percy Schmeiser
has engaged in a David and 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 Supreme
Court with the GM seed company Monsanto builds up steam.
- Monsanto has accused the farmer of "stealing"
its rape oil super-seeds. Schmeiser is counter-suing the giant American
biotechnology company for about £4.2 million (US$6.5 million) for
polluting his genetically modified 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 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 rapeseed oil 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.
- The 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
- 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.
- Schmeiser, who has grown rapeseed oil -- known as canola
in the United States -- on his 1,400 acres for 40 years, first detected
trouble three summers ago. He sprayed the powerful Monsanto weed killer
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 rapeseed
oil plants, which stubbornly refused to die.
- Schmeiser had been crossbreeding his own rapeseed oil
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 rapeseed oil fields near the hamlet of
Bruno, Saskatchewan. Again, some of the plants refused to die.
- Schmeiser mentioned his Frankenstein plants to neighboring
farmers. Then 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 rapeseed oil 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 weed killer.
- 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.
- Some 20,000 farmers use the genetically modified rapeseed
in Canada. But Monsanto, whose 210-acre complex near St. Louis is reputed
to be the biggest biotechnology research center in the world, needed to
recover the huge investment -- an estimated £250 million over 10
years -- it had made into developing Roundup Ready canola.
- So the company patented the new gene and required farmers
who bought the seed to sign a technology-use agreement preventing them
from saving or replanting 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 seeds each year and let Monsanto inspect their
fields. Craig Evans, Monsanto's 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?" Evans asked. "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 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 critical if it hoped to protect its patent
- But 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 Mount Everest.
- He was outraged by Monsanto's behavior 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."
- Schmeiser said he had never bought Monsanto's seed. Far
from being a criminal who wanted to profit from stolen technology, Schmeiser
declared he was a victim of that technology invading his property and crops
uninvited. It is impossible for the amount of genetically modified rapeseed
found in Schmeiser's fields to have been wind-driven, Monsanto lawyer Roger
Hughes said last week, during the first of what is expected to be a three-week
- "This was something that was unleashed into the
environment and cannot be controlled," countered 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,
says pollen from Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola is all over the place.
Some 75 percent of rapeseed oil on the prairies is grown from GM seed.
- "The seed blows in the wind (from other farms) and
cross-pollinates," Schmeiser said. "I suspect it blew on to my
land from a neighbor 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
- "I think Monsanto is trying to make an example of
me because other farmers have found unwanted GM seeds on their land,"
he added. "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."
- Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2000
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