Percy Schmeiser vs. Monsanto
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 quickly followed.
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—ie., 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 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."
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 genies has been let 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 world domination.
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 mindboggling. 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.
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 crops.
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 side.
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, Saskatchewan, Canada, S0K 2A0. For more information: Percy Schmeiser's web site.
© Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2001