In 1998, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto, the multinational agribusiness company, for illegally growing a genetically engineered variety of canola that Monsanto has been aggressively marketing for the past five years. The plant, known as Roundup Ready Canola, is resistant to Roundup, Monsanto’s popular herbicide. Monsanto argued, successfully, that Schmeiser had violated the company’s patent on the product by obtaining and growing the seed without its permission. In fact, Schmeiser claimed, it was Monsanto who was in the wrong. Either through cross-pollination or via wind-borne seeds, a neighbor’s Roundup Ready Canola crop had invaded his own canola fields, genetically contaminating his own carefully bred variety of canola, which Schmeiser had personally developed through natural methods. Schmeiser is appealing Monsanto’s first-round victory.
A major producer of genetically engineered crops (often called GE crops or GMOs, for genetically modified organisms), Monsanto has become the second-largest seed supplier in the world through rapid purchase of smaller seed companies. As the controversy over genetic contamination grows, Schmeiser’s case is being carefully watched by all sides in the worldwide fight over the spread of genetically modified food and, ultimately, control of the food supply. Schmeiser is touring the U.S., India, Europe, and Asia to talk about his fight with Monsanto. On October 10 he spoke at a forum at UT Austin’s Sid Richardson hall.
Texas Observer: Had you ever planted any of Monsanto’s crops?
Percy Schmeiser: No. I never, ever had anything to do with Monsanto. Never bought the seed, I didn’t even know a Monsanto rep or went to a meeting. I was developing my own seed for a long period of time–fifty years in fact. So I never, ever planted their seed.
T.O.: How did you find out you had a Monsanto crop in your fields?
P.S.: To maintain weed control, we’ll generally spray with Roundup. And this one year–1998–we found that there were some canola plants that didn’t die.
T.O.: How did Monsanto find out?
P.S.: It came out in my court case that a former employee of Monsanto had rented some of that land a year or two before. He told Monsanto I possibly could have some of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola in it. And it was quite obvious when you drove down the main road, you’d see something dead, but plants growing in it, and they were canola.
T.O.: How did Monsanto claim this canola got into your field?
P.S.: By either stealing it–they even went that far–or getting it illegally from a seed-house or whatever. So, anyway, I stood up to Monsanto and said, “No way. I never had any. You destroyed my fifty years of development.” So eventually it went to court. But in pretrial just before court… they said that they had absolutely no proof… that I had obtained the seed illegally. But they said that didn’t matter. The fact that there are some of their plants growing on my land infringed on their patent.
T.O.: How likely is it that your canola became Roundup resistant by pollination with patented plants?
P.S.: I’d say cross-pollination would be a smaller way. But the big way–my neighbor, we found out in court, had grown it in 1996 right next to me. A whole half-mile. There was a windstorm and a lot of it blew into my field.
T.O.: The pollen blew over?
P.S.: No, the seeds. So the judge ruled it doesn’t matter how it got there, even if my crop was cross-pollinated. He said if pure seeds got onto my land and mixed with my plants, my whole crop becomes their property because now you can’t distinguish which plants are GMO. So he ruled that all my profits from my 1998 canola crop go to Monsanto–even from fields that were tested and had no contamination.
T.O.: Some plants in your crop might have a single gene that Monsanto spliced into canola. Because Monsanto patented this canola, the presence of a single gene among all these plants, most of which don’t have this gene, means that Monsanto owns the whole thing?
P.S.: That’s right. You can imagine how far-reaching that decision is. Think about farmers all over the world, people that own trees or plants or flowers: Gene gets in….
T.O.: What sort of agreement do farmers enter into when the buy seed from Monsanto?
P.S.: You sign a contract, and in the contract it says you must allow Monsanto’s police to come on your land for three years and you’re not allowed to save your own seed. You’ve always got to go back and buy your seed each year.
T.O.: Why would a farmer sign an agreement with Monsanto?
P.S.: In Canada, farmers were told by Monsanto that if you grew Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola, it would be a bigger yielder, more nutritious, but most of all would need less chemicals. And I think that issue–less chemicals–really got the farmers’ ears because we’d been using chemicals by the hundreds of tons since the war. Our land is polluted, we’re doing damage to the environment, our water’s contaminated….
T.O.: Monsanto was marketing it to do all these things?
P.S.: They also said, “Now we’ll all have sustainable agriculture, we’ll now be able to feed a hungry world.” Now, in four years, what happened? They never developed canola, they just put a gene in, you see. They just took a crop from another company, put a gene in, and through patent law it was theirs. Taking an old variety doesn’t give you more yield. The quality was a lot poorer and farmers that grew it found out they were only getting half the price of conventional canola.
T.O.: OK, how about Monsanto’s claim that you’d use fewer chemicals?
P.S.: Farmers are now using from six to 10 times more chemicals because what has happened is that we’ve developed a new super-weed from genetic engineering. There are about five companies, maybe there are more, but about four or five–that sell GMO canola. So if you had “farmer A” growing a GMO canola from a company over here and “farmer B” was growing a canola from another company and “farmer C” over here was growing Monsanto’s, what has happened through cross-pollination is that you now have the three genes in one plant. So it’s now become a super-weed that takes different chemicals to kill. It has moved into grain fields and all other fields besides canola. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a field in western Canada that’s not contaminated.
T.O.: Do you think farmers view Monsanto less favorably now?
P.S.: Very much so. But the big issue too is their police and how they harass and intimidate people. They also advertise in brochures that if you think your neighbors are growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola without a license, you should rat or squeal on them. And then Monsanto will send out their police force to this farmer, although he may never have grown any. They interrogate him, they harass him, they intimidate him, they say, “We got this tip or rumor that you’re growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola without a license and that if you don’t come clean we’ll get you.” So talk about Gestapo-type methods! So when those people leave this farmer’s home, what it has done to me, is one of the worst things that could happen because it’s breaking down the social fabric of our rural communities. So the trust, the working together, that’s all broken down. To me, it is dragging down our farming communities to that low level of Monsanto’s culture. The other issue is that if a farmer’s not home, they’ll send an extortion letter that says, “We’ve got reason to believe you might be growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola. We think you’ve got so many acres.” This one case where the farmer supplied me the letter said, “$27,500 and we won’t take you to court.” How many thousands of these letters were sent out? We don’t know.
T.O.: How does all this affect Texas farmers?
P.S.: What about the organic farmers? Through the economic impact and loss of seeds and plants through cross-pollination. How does it affect Texans? Anybody that raises crops for exports, their exports to Europe [where GE food is heavily regulated] are all cut off. So now they want to come out with GMO wheat, and if they do, a lot of the countries in the world that purchase American and Canadian wheat have already notified the Canadian wheat farmers and farmers in Montana and North Dakota that they will not buy that wheat. So the economic impact now is a very, very large issue. And that in itself will stop the introduction of GMO wheat. If farmers raise a product they can’t sell–why raise it and financially get ruined over it?
T.O.: What other countries outside of Europe restrict GE foods?
P.S.: A lot of Asian countries, Thailand for example. Japan is getting very jittery, and after the first of the year they’re having a whole new look at whether they’re going to import. They’ve already stopped importing certain foods. I think already there’s soya.
T.O.: I heard you mention earlier that there was a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto [filed by organic farmers in Canada]. On what basis will they sue?
P.S.: There will have to be a number of issues. There is no such thing now as pure canola seed left in North America. There is no such thing as pure soybean seeds in the U.S. It’s all contaminated. Those are all big liability issues. Now, you can see the danger of this. If you get down to one or two varieties in any species and there’s a blight or a disease, you’ve got no other crops to fall back on.
T.O.: What’s the next step for you?
P.S.: I’ve appealed the judge’s decision. A lot of legal people in Canada feel that it’s time to put a stop there, that it has to go to the Supreme Court. The whole issue of patent rights has to be addressed. Can you patent a life-giving form in the first place, and if you can, who can patent it? An individual, a company? How far can you go, ultimately? Whether it’s a seed or a plant, bird, insect, fish, ultimately a human being–how far can you go? So basically what the judge ruled is that patent law takes all the property rights and farmers’ privileges away. In Canada, we have a federal law stating that a farmer can always use his own seed from year to year. Monsanto’s patent takes that all away.
T.O.: Why is this so important to you?
P.S.: My fight is for the property rights of farmers, farmers’ privileges versus the multinationals’ intellectual property law. I believe that a farmer should always, always have the right to use his own seed. That right should never be taken away because some of the best seeds, the best plants on this planet were not developed by scientists and research people. The basic development was done by farmers.
T.O.: Are you opposed to all genetically modified crops?
P.S.: I thought all my life that I always tried to be up-to-date, whether it was the latest farm equipment or the latest technology or whatever. If anybody brings a product onto the market that destroys the property of others and possibly does harm to others in food or the environment also–and no matter how good this product is, if it does those things I just said, the negative side, then I say, “No, I’m against it.” Because nothing should be brought out that destroys the property of others. I lost 50 years of research development on my canola, and I developed canola that [was] resistant to most of the major diseases in western Canada. That was all destroyed. What recourse do I have? Sue a multinational? Who can?
Observer intern Chris Womack is a writer in Austin.