Percy Schmeiser vs. Monsanto
by Gar Smith
Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2001
Ordinarily, when an industry pollutes the environment, the
victims go to court and sue for damages. So, in 1998, when pollen
from a field of Monsanto's genetically engineered (GE) canola
seeds drifted over neighboring fields and infected a patch of
canola being grown by Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, a lawsuit
But this lawsuit was different: It was the St. Louis-based
multinational that sued the 70-year-old farmer. Monsanto claimed
that Schmeiser had misappropriated the company's patented property
- i.e., its genetically engineered pollen.
Schmeiser was both indignant and dumbfounded. "If I would
go to St. Louis and contaminate their plots - destroy what they
have worked on for 40 years - I think I would be put in jail,"
On March 29, 2001, Federal Judge W Andrew MacKay ruled that
Schmeiser's canola plants had violated Monsanto's patent rights.
Schmeiser was ordered to pay Monsanto $10,000 for licensing fees
and up to $75,000 in profits from the sales of his crop.
"This is very good news for us," Monsanto's Trish
Jordan said of the court ruling. "Mr. Schmeiser had infringed
on our patent."
The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) was
less enthusiastic. According to RAFI, the ruling means "farmers
can be forced to pay royalties on GM seeds found on their land,
even if they didn't buy the seeds or benefit from them."
Monsanto Uber Alles
In 2000, more than 109.2 million acres (44.2 million hectares)
of GM crops were planted around the world. Monsanto (which was
acquired by Pharmacia last year) was responsible for 94 percent
of these "Frankenfields. "
Monsanto originally claimed that releasing its genetically
altered crops would pose no harm to the environment because the
mutated pollen would never spread to neighboring crops. Now, as
environmentalists warned, Monsanto's genetic genie has been let
out of the bottle.
But instead of suffering from this cataclysmic ecological
blunder, Monsanto stands to benefit. The court ruling not only
gives Monsanto a "license to pollute," it also gives
the company an incentive to pollute.
Instead of having to pay damages for polluting the environment,
Monsanto now wins two ways: (1) it can extort money
from any neighboring framer who refuses to buy its GM crops,
and (2) it can use pollen pollution as a weapon to destroy all
surrounding natural crop competitors.
The ruling promises nothing less than a profit-driven genetic
apocalypse - a Hitlerian future in which all seeds are "Uberseeds"
created in the Monsanto's labs and sent out on a mission of genetic
The ruling would have given Exxon the right to sue the coastal
residents of Alaska whose beaches illegally "misappropriated"
the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez.
The potential ramifications are mind-boggling. If the Ashcroft-Bush
administration were to succeed in outlawing abortion, for instance,
a clever lawyer defending a
serial rapist might use such twisted logic to argue that his
client had the right to sue his victims for child support.
Anger In the Heartland
Farmers in North America planted three-fourths of the world's
GM crops in 2000 but they are beginning to have second thoughts.
A number of recent studies has shown that promised reductions
in the cost of fertilizers and pesticides has not materialized
and that lab-created crops have been less productive than traditional
The National Farmers Union - in Canada and the US - has demanded
a national moratorium on the production, import and distribution
of GM foods. In North Dakota, wheat farmers have won introduction
of a bill to block the release of Monsanto's genetically manipulated
wheat. In March, the Indiana House of Representatives passed a
bill protecting a farmer's right to save seed.
Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Howard has publicly
advised farmers not to sign Monsanto's Technology Agreement, warning
that the protections and guarantees of the contract were "strictly
Meanwhile, Percy Schmeiser has filed a countersuit against
Monsanto. After three generations in farming, Schmeiser's family
now faces bankruptcy Standing up to a multinational like Monsanto
is costly but farmers from around the world have rallied to Percy's
Since the trial ended in June 2000, Percy has been invited
to speak at seed conferences in New Zealand, Pakistan, India,
Bangladesh and the US. Last October, Percy was honored with India's
Mahatma Gandhi Award for "working for the betterment and
good of [humankind] in a nonviolent way"
Schmeiser's nightmare isn't over. After Monsanto's pollen
contaminated the seeds that he had spent 40 years to develop,
Schmeiser removed his entire canola crop and bought new non-GM
seeds to replant his fields. To his shock, he discovered that
a new crop of Monsanto's GM canola plants had re-germinated in
his fields. When unwanted "volunteers" crop up in fields,
the typical way the farmer deals with the problem is to apply
herbicides. But these second-generation Monsanto seeds had been
engineered in the lab to be "Round-up Ready" - i.e.,
designed to survive applications of Round-up herbicides (also
made by Monsanto).
Monsanto's argument was that the creation of "Round-up
Ready" crops would make it possible to kill any competing
weeds, allowing their seeds to thrive. In practice, Schmeiser
realized, what it means is that Monsanto has created a chemical
spray guaranteed to kill any crop it doesn't "own."
This also means that Monsanto has made it nearly impossible to
eradicate any of its patented crops once they have been released
into the environment.
"I haven't got many years left, but I'm going to spend
what time I have fighting this," Schmeiser told an interviewer
for the Canadian Broadcast Commission.
What You Can Do Percy Schmeiser's family needs funds to survive
and to fight the costly legal battle against Monsanto. Donations
can be sent to: Schmeiser Defense Fund, Canadian Imperial Bank
of Commerce, Humboldt, Sascatchewan, Canada, SOK 2AO. For more
information: www.percyschmeiser com.