The experience of Percy & Louise Schmeiser Fr. Seán McDonagh ( JUNE 30th 2009)

The Pulitzer prize winning journalists Monald L Barlett and James B. Steele, begin their article “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear” by describing what happened to Gary Rinehart in 2002.  He was accused of planting Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) soya in violation of the company’s patent.  Though it was obviously a case of mistaken identity, since Rinehart was not a farmer, the Monsanto agent threatened him with court action.

 

Such scenes have occurred regularly on both U.S. and Canadian farms over the past decade. One of the most celebrated cases is that of  Percy Schmeiser. Percy and his wife Louise Schmeiser operated a farm equipment dealership in Bruno, Saskatchewan Canada and also farmed in the area.  Monsanto filed a lawsuit for patent infringement because some genetically engineered canola was found on his land. Schmeiser is adamant that he did not plant Monsanto’s GE canola.  He insists that he is the aggrieved party because his non-GE seeds, which he had developed for the past 53 years, were contaminated by Monsanto’s GE canola from a surrounding farm where GE canola seeds were used.

 

Schmeister believes that Monsanto is intent on gaining complete control of the staple crops of the world by controlling seeds.  In the past decade Monsanto has spent millions of dollars buying up seed companies all round the world.  He points out that patents have run out on Monsanto’s flagship chemical Roundup Ready. However, farmers who use Monsanto’s GE crops will be forced to use Roundup Ready.

 

Percy and Louise received an overwhelming amount of support in their efforts. Despite this, the financial toll as they fought Monsanto in the courts was enormous, particularly since the Trade-Related Intellectual Properties (TRIPs. 27. 3b)  gives extraordinary legal rights to patent holders.

In 2000 the court ruled against Schmeiser. According to the judgment it did not matter how the GE seeds arrived on the farm, whether by cross-pollination or whether it was blown in on the wind. The very fact that the plants were on his property meant that he was guilty. The judge ruled that all the profits from his 1998 harvest must go to Monsanto, even from the fields where no GE seeds were found.  At this point the legal bills were mounting. By 2002 the Schmeisters had spent $125,000 in lawyers and an appeal would cost him a further $50,000.

The Schmeisers decided to fight on because they believed they had done nothing wrong. In an interview with Acres USA he said that:  “Now, at 70, I am involved with this fight with Monsanto. I stood up to them because a farmer should never give up the right to use his own seed. I felt very strongly about it because my grandparents came here from Europe in the late 1890s and early 1900s to open up this land, to be free, and to grow what they wanted to grow. Now we are going back to a feudal system that they left because they were not free —basically we are becoming serfs of the land.”[1] The long and difficult battle with its stresses and worries took its toll on Louise’s health.

The Schmeisers pursued the case right up to the Canadian Supreme Court.  In its ruling the court supported Monsanto in their claim to own the gene. This meant that the Schmeisers lost their breeding research, which they had built up for decades, and the varieties that they had painstakingly adapted to their local environment for years through cross-pollination, because they now contained the Monsanto-“owned” gene. However, the court also concluded that the Schmeisers should not have to pay anything to Monsanto because they had not in any way benefited from having the seeds on their property.

In an out of court settlement finalized on March 19, 2008, Percy Schmeiser has settled his lawsuit with Monsanto. Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.

 

In 2007 the Schmeisers received the Right Livelihood Award for “their courage in defending biodiversity and farmers’ rights, and challenging the environmental and moral perversity of the current interpretations of patent laws”.[2]


[1] www.enwikipeda.org/wiki/Percy_Schmeiser downloaded June 24, 2009.

[2] Interview with Percy Schmeiser. “Seeds of Discontent,” WorldWatch, January/February 2002, pages 8 – 10.

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