By Daniel Correia
Percy Schmeiser had been farming canola for just over 50 years on his family’s 1,030-acre farm when Monsanto, a St. Louis-based biotechnology company, came to him with some surprising news: he was growing Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready canola without a license. Monsanto’s claim, that Schmeiser had stolen and planted the company’s seeds, resulted in a heated legal battle, rife with accusation and questions over the nature of patent law and farming techniques.
On Nov. 13, the Schmeiser’s came to the Live Oak Grange in Santa Cruz, where Percy told his story to a room of about 80 students, farmers, teachers, and other local residents concerned with the myriad issues surrounding the debate over Genetic Engineered (GE) crops and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
While introducing Schmeiser, Kenji Dickerson, high school agriculture teacher and Master of the local Live Oak Grange No. 503, emphasized the significance of the event.
The event was collectively hosted by the Santa Cruz Food Systems Network, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Cal GE Free, and other sustainable agriculture advocates who were involved in a campaign that culminated in the ban of the production of GMOs in their respective jurisdiction, one of the few such successful efforts in California.
"Long ago farmers were banned from unionizing and collective meetings, so they created a hall…that you had to be a member to get into, in order to partake in the discussion without being assaulted by Pinkerton Detectives," Dickerson told the audience. "It’s unfortunate to say that not a whole lot has changed, except for some of the techniques."
Schmeiser then explained his legal saga against Monsanto, a series of lawsuits, which he expects will continue.
"In 1998 Monsanto laid a [patent infringement] lawsuit against my wife and myself," Schmeiser told the audience, describing the first lawsuit, which eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada.
"They said we were growing Monsanto’s canola without a license, and that came as a complete surprise to us because we realized that if we were now contaminated with their GMOs that it would ruin a life of research and development."
Monsanto has genetically engineered a strain of Roundup Ready canola seeds, which are designed to withstand its herbicide Roundup.
While Monsanto claims that GMOs like their Roundup Ready canola and soybeans reduce chemical use, provide higher yields and withstand a larger variation of climates than conventional crops, others say concerns over health risks, environmental dangers, and patent restrictions persist.
Schmeiser does not know how the Roundup Ready canola sprouted on his farm, but thinks that the contamination occurred due to cross pollination, direct seed movement from wind or transportation, or other natural seed-spreading processes.
Monsanto, however, thinks otherwise, according to Public Affairs representative Chris Horner.
"He purposely planted it himself. He knew or should have known that crop was in his field," Horner said in a phone interview with CHP. Referring to the outcome of the first court case, Horner continued, "What the court record shows is that it was not ‘accidental contamination."
In that case, according to Schmeiser, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that, because Schmeiser was not benefiting from the contamination, he would not be penalized. Each party was to be held responsible for paying their own court fees, which for Schmeiser was in excess of $400,000, while Monsanto’s was over $2 million.
During the litigation, Schmeiser said Monsanto did all it could to hold him responsible for the patented canola found on his farm.
"They put a lien against our farmland, our home, our machinery, to stop us from farming or mortgaging our home to pay our legal costs," Schmeiser said. "They wanted to see how far they could exercise patent laws over farmer’s rights."
Although many of the criticisms of genetically engineered crops were addressed in his presentation, Schmeiser emphasized the legal problems that farmers face in regards to growing or being contaminated with patented seeds.
"Farmers [who purchase Monsanto’s seeds to grow] must sign a statement saying that they will never tell anyone about what Monsanto has done to them," Schmeiser said.
Horner explained that there is good reason for Monsanto’s patent restrictions.
"We invest about $500 million in research and development and we are compensated by the way farmers pay for the technology," Horner said, explaining why Monsanto and farmers enter usage contracts.
After the interview, Schmeiser told CHP that few farmers are able to challenge Monsanto’s legal policies because of the contracts they sign.
"The Center for Food Safety has documented at least 100 cases where farmers are having similar problems," Schmeiser said.
While Schmeiser may be one of few who are able to bring these debates to the courts, he is certainly raising awareness on the issue. Balyn Rose, environmental studies major at UC Santa Cruz studying agroecology and natural history, agrees that Schmeiser is blazing a trail.
"It is amazing how he is putting himself on the line," Rose said after the event. "His case is the quintessential picture of the struggles that small farmers are going through now."