Percy Schmeiser: the man that took on Monsanto

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. Schmeiser spoke to the founder of The Ecologist, Edward Goldsmith.

The Ecologist: Your crops are now Monsanto’s property. But can it actually take them away from you?

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

The judge also ruled that in Canada 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 was irrelevant.

I had eight different canola fields at the 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. The university’s scientists found that half of my land 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. 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. The judge reminded me that in Canada patents have precedence over and above a farmer’s rights, and he cited a federal law to this effect passed in 1991. Monsanto wants to see exactly how far it can go in controlling a farmer’s use of seed.

That’s what Monsanto wants?

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

Has this ever happened to anybody else?

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

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

Yes, it is a precedent-setting case.

You have said that Monsanto was harassing you in all sorts of ways – some of them quite illegally.

To give you an example: Monsanto has its own police force, many of whom are ex-Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 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 – 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’. Every farmer knows 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 Monsanto intimidates farmers.

Monsanto also prints advertisements asking farmers if their neighbours are growing its canola or soya… They are told to inform on their neighbours, and if they do and Monsanto does not already know about the offence then it gives them free leather jackets, and it will 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 it will send farmers what we call an ‘extortion letter’ telling them that it has reason to believe that they might be growing GM canola without a licence and that it can ask them for $100,000-$150,000 compensation, and saying that they may or may not be taken to court. The letters also specify that farmers will be sued if they tell anyone about such threats. Every farmer who testified on my behalf at my trial had at one time received such a letter.

Alternatively, Monsanto will fly in a small plane over a farmer’s canola fields and drop one of their Monsanto Round-Up Ready (Monsanto’s pesticide) spray balls. It will then come back in about 10 days, and if the canola field has died Monsanto knows that the farmer wasn’t using its canola; if it hasn’t died, it knows he was. The fact that it is illegal to spray from the air in Canada does not worry Monsanto in any way.

Monsanto is above the law?

Yes, but its case is strengthened by the contract it makes farmers who buy the seeds sign. 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 chemicals from Monsanto;

(4) you must sign a non-disclosure statement so that if you happen to commit some violation of the contract you cannot say anything to anybody;

(5 ) and you have to pay a $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.

Monsanto can go into your granaries, into your fields – do whatever it likes. It can demand your income-tax records, your farm records, the records of your children, etc, and actually do this for three years – even though you signed a contract for only one year. Monsanto’s new contract also has a clause in it that if something goes wrong with your crop, with the seed or anything, you cannot sue Monsanto.

So why does anybody sign the contract?

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 three years.

Why has Monsanto transformed itself into such a ruthless company?

Monsanto wants complete control of the seed market because it knows that its patent on Round-Up ran out three or four years ago in both Canada and the US and that the sale of this herbicide represented 25 per cent of its world sales and 50 per cent of its 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. In the last five years, Monsanto went out on a buying spree and spent over $12 billion buying up seed companies around the world. It is now the world’s second largest seed company.

So Monsanto is now just too powerful to oppose and can get whatever it wants?

Yes, it’s got you. Intellectual property rights (the new patent laws) now have precedence over private property law, the interests of the biotechnology companies have precedence over those of the natural environment, and profits have precedence over food production, food quality and public health.

The Canadian government also insists that normal crops can co-exist with genetically-modified crops?

Right. Scientists at the University of Manitoba sought to establish the distance that genetically-modified pollen could travel. They found that wheat pollen would stay airborne for at least one hour. So they related that to wind speed. Canola pollen stays airborne for nearly three hours. If, when your pollen is in the air you get a whirlwind, or a ‘desert devil’, it can suck it over 23 miles.

When my lands were contaminated, it was not by the movement of pollen but by direct seed movement: the seed was blown off trucks. 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. There is direct seed movement caused by the wind, the birds, the bees, and so on.

To maintain, as the government does, that GM is safe so long as you keep the plots with the GM crops at a distance of 10 or even 50 metres away from your conventional crops is just a joke. Farmers know that you can’t contain the pollen or the seed.

How about the field trials that they have done in the UK and elsewhere? What is their object?

They have carried out the same field trials many times in North America and other places. [For biotechnology] it is a good way of getting a toe in the door and then, of course, a foot.

But is the real purpose to contaminate neighbouring fields?

That’s the object. There is no other reason for them.

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


But no one is going to put up with that.

No, but the objective is to contaminate, and a short time ago Dale Adolphe, the head of the Canadian Seed Growers Association, which sells Monsanto’s seeds, 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 hell of a thing to say. He admitted: ‘The way we do this is to take people’s choice away.’

I am told that you are thinking of going organic.

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

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

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 400 or 500 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.

Let’s get back to your lawsuit.

Monsanto knows 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: it said I was arrogant and stubborn because I wouldn’t do what it wanted. It has sued me now for another $1m for court costs. So I had to go back to Court and the judge awarded Monsanto $153,000. Our appeals are now going ahead. Going to the Supreme Court costs 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. Monsanto knows that, and probably believes I will give up. But it has a surprise in store. I shall go ahead, come what may.

Schmeiser’s case was heard before the Supreme Court of Canada in January. 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. He is currently waiting for the decision, which is expected by the end of June.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2004

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