Who Owns Life? Canadian Farmer Sued by Monsanto

by Lynne Jackson

ALBANY, NY — The First Lutheran Church was the setting for the talk by Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement. Speaking to a standing room only crowd of more than 300, Percy spoke plainly and clearly about the lawsuit and what it means to everyone in the world.

Percy described himself as a seed saver and seed developer. A seed saver is a farmer who saves seed from one year to the next so that he has seed to plant the next year, and does not need to buy seed. His crop was canola, also known as rapeseed. He and his wife Louise spent 50 years developing canola seeds that would grow well in his part of the world — Bruno, Saskatchewan, about 250 miles north of the border of Montana. His farm is about 1400 acres in size, an average size farm for the plains.

Percy was mayor of his village for more than 25 years, was elected to the provincial parliament and for his entire life has worked for rules and laws to benefit farmers.

Around 1995, Percy told his wife he was thinking of retirement. Louise expressed concerns about what he would do with himself, so Percy decided to keep farming for a while longer.

What to do with his spare time was decided in 1998, when Monsanto sued Percy for patent infringement. Monsanto said that it had found GMO (genetically modified organism) canola seed in Percy’s field, and that Percy had to pay a $15 an acre fee for using its patented GMO seed.

Percy never had anything to do with Monsanto. He never purchased seed from Monsanto. He was concerned that Monsanto seed had contaminated his farm. The GMO canola plants got into his fields by the wind blowing pollen or seed onto his land.

It took two years for the pre-trail motions and paper-work to be completed. During this time, Monsanto dropped their charge that Percy had illegally obtained the GMO seed. Because this was a patent case, the case would not be heard by a jury but by one federal judge. The trial took two and one-half weeks.

The federal judge decided that it did not matter how the GMO crops got into his field, he must pay Monsanto their fee of $15/acre. In addition, the judge ordered that Percy pay Monsanto all of the profits from his 1998 crop, and that he must turn over all of the plants and seeds to Monsanto. Two of Percy’s fields were not contaminated with Monsanto GMOs and 60% of the GMOs Monsanto found were in the ditch by the road.

Percy appealed his case to the federal Court of Appeals, which upheld the ruling against Percy by the first judge.

The last resort was the Supreme Court. As in the US, the Canadian Supreme Court only reviews a very few of the cases it is asked to. The Supreme Court heard the case the week before Percy came to speak, on January 20. Because it is a complicated case, the Court reserved decision. It may be as long as six months before the court hands down a ruling.

This ruling may have world-wide consequences. This is the first case of its kind in the world. Though obviously the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court is not binding on other countries, it will set a precedent that other countries may look to when confronted with similar cases.

Percy has been to every continent in the world except Antarctica (no need to tell the penguins about GMO crops!) to talk about his case and the issue of GMO crops. This is much more than a simple patent issue. Percy asks, Can living organisms be owned by corporate patents? What about a farmer’s right to grow organic crops? What about a farmer’s right to use his own seed? And,

Who can patent life?

In this case, it is a single gene put into the canola seed that makes the canola plant immune to the herbicide roundup. Because Monsanto put this single gene into the canola plant, does this mean that Monsanto can patent the entire plant?

Percy then went on to explain why Monsanto become the one of the biggest seed companies when it used to be one of the biggest chemical companies. About five years ago, the patent on Roundup ran out. Roundup is an herbicide sold by Monsanto. It constitutes 45% of Monsanto’s sales and 25% of Monsanto’s profits. Monsanto went on a buying spree and spent $2 billion to buy seed companies.

Monsanto went on to develop genetically modified seeds that were immune to Roundup. They sold these seeds to farmers, promising a greater yield and less need to use chemicals.

Percy described Monsanto’s tactics in selling seeds to farmers. Farmers are not allowed to save their seed from year to year, they must buy the seed from Monsanto. The farmer must permit the Monsanto police force to go on their land for three years, even though the contract is for one. And, the contracts states that the farmer will not sue Monsanto for any reason.

The Monsanto police are often former Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Percy has photographed them coming onto a farmer’s field, without the farmer’s permission, and taking samples of the canola plants.

According to Percy, for farmers that do not buy seed from Monsanto, Monsanto will fly a helicopter over a farmer’s field and drop some Roundup herbicide. Then, a couple of weeks later, Monsanto will return. If the canola plants are still alive, that means they contain the patented gene. Monsanto will send farmers a letter asking for payment of the “Technology Fees”; Percy called these “extortion” letters.

What are some of the bigger issues with GMO plants? First, there is no such thing as containment. The GMO plants produce seeds that are spread through wind, flood, birds, and the pollen is spread through bees. Once these organisms have been released into the environment, there is no calling them back. Next, there is no co-existence; these GMO plants destroy both organic and conventional farmers crops. Percy said, “I cannot grow canola. Choice is taken away. Can you recall a life-form from the environment? No.”

This fight against Monsanto has been hard on Percy. He is 73, and his wife is 72; they have five children. He has a judgement against him for $153,000, and has $300,000 in legal bills. But, he said that he and his wife decided they had to stand up to for farmer’s rights; that they had to stand up to Monsanto.

By the way, Percy notes, no GMO food is sold at the Monsanto headquarters in London.

Save the Pine Bush will follow this case because of the implications of releasing GMO crops into the environment. For up-to-date information and Percy and his fight, go to his website: http://www.percyschmeiser.com/.