One Farmer's Resistance Against Monsanto

This fall, Percy Schmeiser is a wheat farmer. He'd rather be growing canola but Monsanto and the Canadian courts have disabused him of that notion. If he grows his preferred canola, his crop belongs to Monsanto. In fact, if farmers use commercially available seed this coming year for their canola crops, it looks like many of those crops, too, will belong to Monsanto.

Monsanto, you see, has a patent. It owns canola seed with a certain genetic trait. Monsanto says Schmeiser -- and anyone else who uses its patented genetic seed code -- is a thief.

Schmeiser was thrust into a crusader's role against Monsanto and its Roundup Ready genetically modified canola seed. Monsanto sued him, accusing him of using its patented seed without paying for it or signing a contract with Monsanto. Schmeiser maintains he was planting his own saved seed and that he couldn't help it if there was cross-pollination between his crops and others that were using, and paying Monsanto for, genetically modified seed.

"Monsanto has complete control of the seed supply," said Schmeiser of the canola crop farmed in western Canada. "A lot of farmers don't realize the implications" of a 2001 Federal Court of Canada decision siding with Monsanto against Schmeiser. The court said Schmeiser violated Monsanto patents on its Roundup Ready canola when he planted and sold seed for grain in 1998. Tests on Schmeiser's crop found it to contain Monsanto's patented gene.

Monsanto genetically modified the seed so farmers would be able to spray its herbicide Roundup on their canola without it killing the canola itself, only killing weeds that can compete with the canola crop. Monsanto sells the farmers both the seed and the herbicide and requires them to sign a contract.

More than 30,000 Canadian farmers have signed a "Grower Agreement" with a licensing fee of $15 per acre, according to Monsanto. The contracts forbid farmers to save seed and use it the next season. It gives Monsanto certain rights to check up on the farmer.

Schmeiser, who's been planting and saving canola seed since the 1950s, planted 1,030 acres with canola in 1998. He says he wasn't looking for the Roundup trait in his crop, even though he sprayed the herbicide in small amounts around telephone poles and such. After testing, Monsanto's patented gene was found in Schmeiser's crops -- even though he swears it was accidental.

"Thus, a farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them," noted the court. "He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell."

Canola, an modified seed in and of itself, is used for cooking oil. It was not a crop until the 1950s when rapeseed was engineered (not genetically modified) to be edible.

Schmeiser claims that Monsanto harasses farmers. He's produced letters given to him from other farmers that he calls "extortion" letters. One such letter from 1998 told the farmer he had "improperly" planted Roundup Ready seed and called for the farmer to pay Monsanto $28,000 and allow company employees to take samples on his land for three years. Monstanto set up what farmers call a "snitch" phone line to encourage farmers to report their neighbors' behavior to the corporation.

"That's completely false," said Monsanto Canada spokeswoman Trish Jordan. She said there are an "extremely small" number of patent violators like Schmeiser. "If they're using the technology without having paid for it, we approach them first. Sometimes they say, 'Yeah, you caught me.' Others deny it. In that case our only option is to take samples of their crop." She said that Monsanto cannot take samples without having a legal claim filed and that there is only one such claim is pending.

"Monsanto has created a reign of fear," says Percy Schmeiser, who accuses Monsanto of stepping up its tactics to "harass" farmers this fall. "If a farmer gets one of these extortion letters, can you imagine the fear in that family. What will happen to them? That they won't have a farm left?"

If current studies are any indication, Monsanto could control nearly all of the canola seed in the region. In August, research was made public from a test at the University of Manitoba that found 32 of 33 commercially available seed lots planted with canola that was not supposed to be Roundup Ready contained the trait of herbicide resistance.

Will other farmers be forced to grow wheat instead of canola like Schmeiser? Will the olive oil or sunflower industry get an unexpected boost from Monsanto? "We don't know what's going to happen next spring. The seed stock is all contaminated. Planting it would violate Monsanto's patent. If farmers [purchase from] a seed company they know full well that Monsanto can destroy or keep their crop."

"Monsanto is basically saying, 'If that gene is in your field it's ours.' That's overstepping what's reasonable," said Dan Charles, author of "Lords of the Harvest." He added that Schmeiser is "absolutely correct about Monsanto's bullying tactics."

Monsanto didn't pick some hayseed to drag to court. Schmeiser is politically savvy. He's been touring the globe -- just returning from a month in Central and South America -- speaking to anyone who'll listen about genetically modified seed and Monsanto.

The 71-year-old farmer won't make much money this year on the 400 acres of wheat that he's growing, plus some peas and oats. His wife keeps the family in food with her organic garden. He says he has about $200,000 in lawyers fees to pay. In addition, on November 14, federal court upheld its judgment against Schmeiser, ordering him to pay a $153,000 fine to Monsanto plus court costs. The case is on appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court.

J.A. Savage is senior correspondent for the independent publication California Energy Markets and a frequent contributor to AlterNet.

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