Bad Seeds

Court rules farmer illegally grew crops he never planted

by Liane C. Casten

In These Times, June 2001


In a landmark victory for corporations heavily invested in genetically engineered foods, on March 29 a Canadian judge ruled that farmer Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Saskatchewan must pay $105,000 to Monsanto for illegally growing the company's genetically engineered rapeseed, from which canola oil is made. But Schmeiser says he never planted Monsanto's seeds. "How can somebody put anything on someone else's land, then claim it's theirs and say, 'We'll take it. We'll sue him. We'll fine him'?" he asks.

In 1995, Monsanto put on the market a rapeseed that had been engineered to be immune to its Roundup Ready herbicide. This means a farmer can spray the herbicide over a planted field and kill all the weeds growing there, but not hurt the crop. The company sells the rapeseed- about half the rape planted in Saskatchewan in 1999 came from Monsanto seeds-but keeps the rights to the DNA itself. Thus, rather than save seeds from last year's crop to use this year, as many do, and as Schmeiser traditionally has done, farmers must buy new rapeseed from Monsanto each year, and allow the company to inspect their fields.

Schmeiser, however, never bought Monsanto's rapeseed. He'd never gone to the meetings Monsanto held for farmers to extol the benefits of genetically engineered foods, and he had no idea that finding Monsanto's rapeseed on his farm might make him in any way liable. However, having grown rapeseed for more than 40 years, he knew something was amiss when he sprayed Roundup Ready around the electricity poles at the edge of his farm and it failed to kill the oilseed rape plants growing there.

Schmeiser figures the seeds came from his neighbor's fields, which had been planted with Monsanto's seeds, via wind, pollen drift and bees. "You can't control it," Schmeiser says. "It might end up 10 miles, 20 miles away. It's all over the place, it cross-pollinates."

It came out in court that Monsanto hired a Saskatoon private investigator (from a firm founded by former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers) to trespass onto Schmeiser's and other farmers' lands to obtain rapeseed samples. Then, a Monsanto representative secretly approached the Humboldt Flour Mill where Schmeiser brought his harvested seed for cleaning, and asked for a sample for DNA testing. The sample was found to contain Monsanto's patented DNA.

Monsanto's lawyers did not care how the seeds arrived on Schmeiser's land. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement, asking the court for all the profits from his 1998 rapeseed crop, the return of "all seeds or crop" containing the patented genes, punitive damages for illegally obtaining the seeds, and the company's court costs. Monsanto justifies its actions by stating there are farmers who might be cheating and saving seed, or borrowing a bit of seed from neighbors.

Schmeiser was just one of more than 1,000 farmers that Monsanto had investigated, according to the Guardian of London. Rick Weiss reports in the Washington Post that Monsanto "sponsors a toll-free tip line to help farmers blow the whistle on their neighbors. The company also has placed radio ads broadcasting the names of non-compliant growers caught planting the company's seeds. Critics say those tactics are fraying the social fabric that holds farming communities together."

Unlike hundreds of similarly accused North American farmers who have reached out-of-court settlements with Monsanto, Schmeiser refused to settle and instead fought back. "I never put those plants on my land," he says. "The question is, where do Monsanto's rights end and mine begin?"

Schmeiser does not see why he should be penalized for a natural accident. But this recent court ruling means that farmers must now accept liability for any genetically engineered seeds that end up on their land. "If you have a patent you should be able to control it," he says. "My many years of developing canola strains in organic farming are now ruined by this contamination."

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