November 19, 2017

Spanner in the works

Edward Goldsmith interviews Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who risked everything to challenge GM giant Monsanto. Interview conducted on 1 May 2004.

Background: For 40 years Percy Schmeiser grew oilseed rape on his farm in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Usually, he would sow each year’s crop with seeds saved from the previous harvest. In 1998 Monsanto took Schmeiser to court. Investigators employed by the company had found samples of its GM oilseed rape among Schmeiser’s stock. Monsanto’s lawsuit alleged that the farmer had infringed on the firm’s patent. It even stated that Schmeiser had obtained Monsanto seeds illegally, going so far as to suggest that he might have stolen them from a seed house. The corporation later admitted that Schmeiser had not obtained the seeds illegally, but said that wasn’t important. What did matter, Monsanto argued, was that it had found some of its canola plants in the ditch along Schmeiser’s field (note that the plants were not found in Schmeiser’s fields); that meant that the farmer had violated the firm’s patent. The judge agreed with Monsanto, ruling that “the source of [GM] oilseed rape . . . is not really significant for the issue of infringement”. In other words, it was irrelevant how the patented canola plants got on Schmeiser’s land. It could have happened as a result of cross-pollination or by seed movement caused by wind. (The latter is the biggest cause of contamination involving GM crops, and the farm next to Schmeiser’s did grow Monsanto’s crop.) The judge told Schmeiser that all his seeds, developed over almost half a century, were now the property of Monsanto.

The Percy Schmeiser website contains much useful information on the legal battle, in which Schmeiser was ultimately victorious in Canada’s Supreme Court (May 2004) and similar fights in progress elsewhere in Canada, the USA and other countries.

Percy begins the dialogue by explaining how his problems began . . .

Percy: Monsanto undertook a lawsuit against me in 1998, and in that Lawsuit they said that I had obtained canola seeds, planted them, and therefore infringed on their patent. They even stated that I had obtained them illegally. They went so far as to say that I might have stolen them from a seed house. However, in the 2 years of pre-trial, Monsanto had to withdraw all allegations that I had obtained the seeds illegally and they even admitted that it was a false allegation on their part. But they said it didn’t matter. What mattered was that they had found some of their canola plants in the ditch along my field – not even in my field – and that meant that I had violated their patent. It was on the basis of patent infringement that I went to trial.

The judge concurred. For him it doesn’t matter how the patented canola plants got on my land. It could be by cross pollination, by direct seed movement caused by the wind, which is the biggest cause of contamination, or from the farm right next to me which grew it. None of these mattered. All my seeds and plants were now Monsanto’s property, regardless of how they got there, even against my wishes.

Teddy: So your crops are now Monsanto’s property. But can they actually take them away from you?

Percy: Yes. They can make me burn them, or destroy them by any other means, or they can make me harvest them, in which case I have to give them all the seeds from my plants as well as my profits.

The judge also ruled that in Canada, under existing patent laws, an infringement occurs when you use the patented seeds and spray them with their herbicides. I have never done that but the judge ruled that it was irrelevant.

I had 8 different canola fields at that time and I had seeds from each of them sent to the University of Manitoba to see how much of my pure seed was contaminated. Their scientists found that half of my land there had no contamination. But because I was a seed developer and a seed saver, using my seed from year to year – there remained the probability that there could be some of Monsanto’s seeds even on the uncontaminated land, so that even the profits from those lands had to be handed over to Monsanto.

Worse still I was not allowed to use my seeds again. They had to be handed over to Monsanto. He reminded me that in Canada patents had precedence over and above farmer’s rights and cited a Federal law to this effect passed in 1991. Monsanto wants to see exactly how far they can go in controlling a farmer’s use of seed.

Teddy: That’s what Monsanto wants?

Percy: Yes, they admitted it in court. It was a test case.

Teddy: Has this ever happened to anybody else?

Percy: No. There are other cases pending until the outcome of my case.

Teddy: And these new cases will use your case as a precedent?

Percy: Yes, it is a precedent – a setting case.

Teddy: You said yesterday that Monsanto were harassing you in all sorts of ways – some of them quite illegally.

Percy: Yes.

Teddy: Tell me about that.

Percy: Well, to give you an example Monsanto has its own police force, many of whom are ex-Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). They will go into any farmer’s field that they choose and take away either seeds or plants, in whatever state they happen to be and so even against the farmer’s will, in other words they steal them.

If a farmer catches one of them in his field and says, “you are trespassing – you are stealing some of my crops”, they will just laugh at him and say, “If you take us to court, we will drag you through the court system and you won’t have a farm left”. They now add, “We will do to you what we did to Percy Schmeiser”. Farmers know what it has cost me in legal fees to stand up to Monsanto. Few want to spend $100,000 or more and also put up with all the stress involved in fighting a powerful multinational. That’s how they intimidate farmers.

Monsanto also prints advertisements asking farmers if their neighbour is growing Monsanto’s canola or soya. If so, they are told to inform on their neighbour, and if Monsanto does not already know about it, then they give them a free leather jacket and they’ll harass, intimidate and threaten the offending farmer. As a result farmers no longer trust each other, and are working together far less. What we are seeing is a veritable breakdown of our rural social fabric.

If Monsanto can’t find anyone at home they will send him what we call an “extortion letter” telling him that they have reason to believe that he might be growing 100 – 200 hectares of GM canola without a licence and can ask him for $100,000 – $150,000 compensation, telling him that he may or may not be taken to court. They also specify that the farmer will be sued if he tells anyone about this threat. Every farmer who testified on my behalf at my trial had at one time received such a letter!

Alternatively they will fly in a small plane over a farmer’s canola fields and drop one of their Monsanto Round-up Ready spray balls which generally cover about 30 feet across. They will then come back in about ten days and if the canola field has died they know that the farmer wasn’t using Monsanto’s canola. If it hasn’t died they know he was. The fact that it is illegal to spray from the air in Canada does not worry them in any way.

Teddy: They are above the law?

Percy: Yes, but their case is strengthened by the contract they make farmers sign who buy the seeds. It states that:

  1. You cannot use your own seeds. In this way you sign your rights away.
  2. You must always buy your seed from Monsanto.
  3. You must buy the chemicals from Monsanto
  4. You must sign a non-disclosure statement that if you happen to commit some violation of their contract, you cannot say anything to anybody
  5. You have to pay $15 an acre technology charge to Monsanto and then you must also permit Monsanto’s police to come onto your land with or without your permission. They can go into your granaries, into your fields – do whatever they like
  6. They can demand your income-tax records, your farm records, the records of your children etc. and actually do this for 3 years, even though you signed a contract for only 1 year
  7. If something goes wrong with your crop, with the seed or anything, you cannot sue Monsanto.

Teddy: But why does anybody sign the contract?

Percy: A lot of people don’t know what is really in it – it is in such small print that they never even read it. Also, before you sign it you are invited to a special Monsanto informational evening where you are wined and dined. A lot of people are also taken on fishing trips. Eventually a lot of farmers signed up. Well, they didn’t like it, and are tied up for 3 years.

Teddy: Why, we might ask has Monsanto transformed itself into such a ruthless company?

Percy: Monsanto want complete control of the seed market because they know that their patent on Round-Up ran out 3 or 4 years ago in both Canada and the USA and the sale of this herbicide represented 25% of world sales and 50% of the profits. Anybody can now produce Round-Up and sell it so the only way to control future sales is to control the world seed supply. So in the last 5 years, they went out on a buying spree and spent over $12 billion buying up seed companies around the world and they are now the second largest seed company.

Teddy: So they are now just too powerful to oppose, so they can get what they want.

Percy: Yes, they’ve got you. Intellectual property rights (the new patent laws) now have precedence over private property law, the interests of the Biotechnology companies over those of the natural environment, profits over food production, food quality over public health.

Teddy: The government also insists that normal crops can co-exist with genetically modified crops.

Percy: Right. Scientists in the University of Manitoba simply sought to establish the distance that genetically modified pollen could travel. They found that wheat pollen would stay airborne for at least 1 hour. So they related it to wind speed. If you had a 35 kilometre wind it could travel so far? But Canola pollen stays airborne for nearly 3 hours. If there is a 35k wind it can blow so far, but if when your pollen is in the air you get a whirlwind or a “desert devil”, it can suck it over 23 miles.

In any case, when my lands were contaminated, it was not by the movement of pollen but by direct seed movement. The seed was blown off trucks. Because we have to cut our canola into swathes – you lay it like hay so that it dries. It’s like tumbleweed, once it dries and you get a stronger wind it will shell out as it blows, so there is a direct seed movement, in particular by the wind, but also of course by the birds, bees and so on. So to maintain, as the government does, that it’s safe so long as you keep the plots with the GM crops at a distance of ten or even 50 metres away from your conventional crops, is just a joke. We as farmers know that you can’t contain the pollen or the seed.

Teddy: How about these field trials that they are doing in England and elsewhere. What is their object?

Percy: They have carried out the same field trials many times in North America and other countries of the world. It is a good way of getting a toe in the door and then of course a foot.

Teddy: But is their real purpose to contaminate neighbouring fields?

Percy: That’s their object. There is no other reason for them.

Teddy: Do they believe that when they have contaminated all the world’s crops they can go on getting royalties forever?

Percy: Exactly.

Teddy: But no one is going to put up with that.

Percy: No, but their objective is to contaminate, and a short time ago, the head of the Canadian Seed Grower’s Association, which sells Monsanto’s seeds, a person by the name of Dale Adolphe said, “there is so much opposition in the world to any further releases of GM crops that the only way that remains to go ahead with them is to contaminate”. It’s a helluva thing to say he admitted: “but the way we do this is to take people’s choice away”.

Teddy: I am told that you are thinking of going organic.

Percy: In Saskatchewan we use one third of all the chemicals – insecticides, herbicides, and pesticides in Canada – and we have the highest rate of cancer.

Teddy: You told me that many of your colleagues have got cancer.

Percy: In fact I don’t have a single neighbour left that has not had cancer, and only one is still living. I am the only one who has not had it. The alarming thing is that in villages of four or five hundred people it is not uncommon to find children – babies under the age of one year – having cancer, and not uncommon to find four or five babies with it in a single village.

Teddy: But let’s get back to your lawsuit . . .

Percy: They know that my case has cost my wife and me about $200,000. We have mortgaged some of our land and our house and so on to pay our lawyers. Monsanto came after me – they said I was arrogant and stubborn because I wouldn’t do what they wanted. They have sued me now for another $1,000,000 for court costs – so I had to go back to Court and the judge awarded Monsanto $153,000. Our appeals are now going ahead. If it goes ahead at the Supreme Court it will cost another $25,000.

How can the average person pay all this money? If I hadn’t had help from sympathisers from around the world, I couldn’t have carried on. If I raise the $25,000 which it will cost for leave to appeal, if the case goes ahead, my court of appeal costs will probably be another $25,000. They know that, and probably believe I will give up. But they have a surprise in store. I shall go ahead, come what may.

The latest situation is that my case was heard before the Supreme Court of Canada on January 20, 2004. The case now covers more than just patent infringement and farmers’ rights to use their own seed. It now includes the patenting of genes in regards to higher life forms from seeds to plants to animals (Harvard Mouse) to ultimately human beings. We are currently waiting for the decision which is expected by the end of June.


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