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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

GM Suit

Air Date: Week of

In the first lawsuit of its kind, the Monsanto Corporation is suing a Canadian farmer for patent infringement. Monsanto says the farmer planted its genetically modified (GM) seed without paying for it. The farmer says the seed must have blown in on the wind. Amy Jo Ehman reports from Saskatchewan.


CURWOOD: A dispute between a Canadian farmer and the Monsanto Corporation is making legal history. Monsanto sells a canola seed that's been genetically modified to make it resistant to its popular weed-killer called Round-Up. And they call the seed Round-Up Ready. The Saskatchewan farmer says he never purchased this Monsanto seed, but tests have shown Round-Up Ready canola has been growing on his land. Monsanto has sued the farmer for infringing its patent, but the farmer in turn is suing Monsanto for polluting his fields with genetically engineered seed. Amy Jo Ehman has our story.

(A door shuts, an engine revs up)

EHMAN: It's a winter morning, and the flat open fields of Saskatchewan are dusted with snow. Winter has driven farmers inside.

(A buzzer; the door shuts)

EHMAN: Percy Schmeiser steps into his machine shop, full of parts and tools. Today he's sharpening the kitchen knives.

(A sharpener runs)

EHMAN: Schmeiser farms 1,400 acres near the little town of Bruno in the heart of the Canadian prairie.

(Sharpening continues)

EHMAN: For 50 years Schmeiser hand-picked his best canola seeds and used traditional methods of breeding to produce a canola that was hardy and resistant to disease. The 69-year-old farmer believes it was better than any canola on the market.

SCHMEISER: Canola was my heart and soul. I always had good luck with canola. And you know, I had farmers as far away as Montana come and visit me, how to grow canola.

EHMAN: Two years ago his luck with the crop ran out. The agricultural giant Monsanto accused Schmeiser of illegally growing its genetically-modified canola. Farmers who grow Monsanto's canola must pay for it and sign an agreement promising not to save the seed for replanting in future years. Monsanto's agents collected samples from Schmeiser's fields and there was no denying it contained their gene. The company sued him for patent infringement and is demanding about $300,000 in lost profits, court costs, and penalties. Schmeiser was not apologetic. If Monsanto's gene was in his fields, he says it must have been an act of nature. It could have blown in on the wind. He says even bees could have cross-pollinated his fields. He offers this analogy.

SCHMEISER: If your neighbor has a purebred herd of cows and you've got a scrub bull, and through negligence your scrub bull gets in and impregnates or puts into calf your neighbor's purebred herd, you're responsible. What Monsanto is saying in my case, if their scrub bull gets into my herd of cows, they don't only want the offspring, they want the cows, too.

EHMAN: But knowing now his crop contained Monsanto's gene, on the advice of his lawyer, Schmeiser sold all his canola seed.

SCHMEISER: That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life, is to get rid of seed that you've really put your heart and soul into.

EHMAN: There is no sympathy for Percy Schmeiser at Monsanto. The company would not be interviewed for this story. But Craig Evans, a manager at Monsanto Canada, spoke with reporters outside court last June. He says the percentage of Monsanto's gene in Schmeiser's fields was too high to be chalked up to an act of nature.

EVANS: What's happened here wasn't an accident. That this didn't happen by wind, it didn't happen by bees, it didn't happen by seed spilling off trucks. And I really think what we have here is a Round-Up Ready canola grower who simply didn't pay.

EHMAN: Evans says Monsanto must be aggressive to protect its investment in this new seed and the investment of farmers who purchase it.

EVANS: Growers have told us that they want to be treated fairly. And if somebody is getting this seed for free and this technology for free, it's just not fair.

EHMAN: Monsanto has accused hundreds of farmers in Canada and the U.S. of violating patent laws by growing its genetically-modified seed. Most of those farmers paid Monsanto an out of court settlement. But not Percy Schmeiser. He's got a few other tough fights under his belt, including, he says, three attempts at Mt. Everest and one crossing of the Sahara Desert. He has filed a countersuit accusing Monsanto of polluting his land, and is demanding more than six million dollars in damages.

SCHMEISER: Because they put something into the environment that they knew they could not control. They had no intentions of controlling it; now it's out of control. So, who's responsible?

EHMAN: To police its patent, Monsanto hires private detectives and asks farmers to report anyone they suspect is growing this canola illegally. Monsanto says it received several calls about Schmeiser but he doesn't know who turned him in.

SCHMEISER: Like, farmers tell me that, you know, they're offering a leather jacket to squeal on his neighbor and all that kind of stuff, you know. So I don't think too many people are wearing Monsanto jackets. (Laughs)

WIEBE: This literally and genuinely is a genie out of the bottle, which they will not be able to put back in.

EHMAN: Nettie Wiebe is the former president of the National Farmer's Union in Canada. She has followed the Schmeiser case because, she says, it raises questions about the release of genetically-modified seed into the environment without the ability to control its spread.

WIEBE: These organisms replicate. It's not even like chemical pollution, where you can think about cleaning it up. So that's one of the things that we just haven't accounted for, is how intricate, how complex, how mobile natural organisms are.

(A door creaks open; voices)

EHMAN: Schmeiser is not waiting patiently at home for a verdict in this case.

(Several voices; creaking door)

EHMAN: He's been taking his message of farmer's rights around the world at the invitation of nonprofit groups who admire his stand against an agricultural giant.

SCHMEISER: I've been in India, in Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, England, Luxembourg. And now I'm going to Bangladesh. And when I get back, I'm going to New Zealand and then to Australia.

EHMAN: Schmeiser is a vocal opponent of the kinds of agreements that Monsanto demands of farmers. Agreements, he says, threaten the age-old tradition of saving seed from one year for planting the next.

SCHMEISER: If the farmer always has to go back and buy seed and pay a license on every acre that he seeds, well then, he's under their control. They can dictate who gets the seed, how much you get, how much you pay for it, what chemicals you use. That's giving up your fundamental, basic right as a farmer. You're a serf.

EHMAN: Schmeiser is funding his court fight with donations and his retirement money. If he loses this battle, he says he may have to sell the farm.

SCHMEISER: I probably maybe could have settled with $4,000 or $5,000. Now it's cost me $160,000 already in lawyers' fees, about $40,000 out of pocket...

EHMAN: As Schmeiser talks, he picks up a small golden statue from the table. It's an image of Mahatma Gandhi. It was presented to him in India in recognition of his fight for the rights of Third World farmers.

SCHMEISER: You know, I'm pretty proud of it. It's something that Monsanto can't take away from me. (Laughs)

EHMAN: He says Gandhi had a saying when people demanded change in the world.

SCHMEISER: And he answered that and said, "You are the change." So, I don't want to be a hero or a saint, but if I'm putting into this, and I put my heart and soul into it, you see.

EHMAN: A decision in this court case is expected soon. Whether the judge finds in favor of the corporate giant or the defiant farmer, it is likely to be appealed to a higher court. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Jo Ehman in Saskatchewan, Canada.



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