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Genetic contamination and farmers’ rights
by
Percy Schmeiser
Keywords:  Canada, Monsanto, Seed, Herbicide tolerance, Intelectual property rights.
Correct citation: Schmeiser, P. (2001), "Genetic contamination and farmers’ rights." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 44/45, p. 32.

For many years, the Canadian public saw genetically modified rapeseed as another, potentially profitable, farm management strategy. But that was before Canada’s international market for rapeseed collapsed amid fears of GM contamination and Monsanto took Percy Schmeiser to court. This is his personal story.

My name is Percy Schmeiser. I am a Canadian farmer. For the last 50 years my wife Louisa and I have farmed 1441 acres in Bruno, Saskatchewan. We have built up a farm that works well. Rapeseed is an important crop for us and we used to sell it all over the world for cooking oil and cattle feed. Like most farmers in Western Canada, I collected and stored my own seed. After years of selection I had a variety that gave a good yield, was quite resistant to local diseases and was relatively weed free.

In 1997, I sprayed Roundup as usual on the weeds and stray rapeseed plants growing around my fields. I was surprised that so much rapeseed survived the application. Had I got the herbicide concentration wrong? I now realise this was the first sign that my fields had been contaminated by genetically modified (GM) rapeseed.

My neighbours and 40 per cent of farmers in Western Canada plant GM rapeseed. Since 1993, Monsanto Canada has been licensed to use technology that will make plants resistant to its glyphosphate herbicide, Roundup. Farmers can then use Roundup as a broad-spectrum herbicide without damaging their GM crop. In 1995, Canada approved the uncontained release of GM rapeseed and in 1996 local companies started selling GM varieties.

Although Monsanto own the gene and the technical know-how, they have done little to contain their invention once it entered the environment. In 1998, Monsanto inspectors entered my land without permission and took rapeseed. They accused me of planting GM rapeseed without a licence and prosecuted me. If Monsanto suspect farmers are growing GM rapeseed without a licence, they take away rapeseed plants for inspection. If test results are positive and the licence fee of Canadian $15 per acre and contract have not been met, legal proceeding for infringing Monsanto’s patent follow.

In my case, GM plants had seeded themselves on my land and they pollinated my conventional rapeseed. The following planting season I tried to contain GM contamination by buying new seed but still 20 per cent of my harvest was contaminated.

 

In Canada there is no law against carrying rapeseed in open trucks or leaving cut rapeseed in the field. This makes it easy for the small seeds to spread. It is also impossible to contain pollen flows. The gene responsible for glyphosphate resistance is a dominant gene and rapeseed an open-pollinated plant. When a GM plant crosses with conventional rapeseed, resistance will be carried into the following generation. In my fields the GM variety was thickest along the roadway. There was little in the field itself. When I received the court summons I wondered why anyone would think I had deliberately mixed GM rapeseed with my own seed. The only advantage of growing GM rapeseed is its resistance to Roundup. If farmers spray Roundup on a mixed GM and non-GM crop they can expect big losses. In my defence I argue that possessing the seed does not violate Monsanto’s patent. It becomes a violation when I spray my crop with Roundup and activate the innovation – the gene that confers glyphosate resistance.

When this gene incorporates itself into a seed or plant, what are Monsanto’s rights? The seed and plants are the farmer’s property. GM rapeseed has the ability to intrude where it was not planted. It has the unique ability to replicate itself. I believe Monsanto lost its right to exclusivity when it lost control of its invention. How can farmers avoid GM rapeseed getting into their crops and becoming a contaminating weed? These questions are now being discussed by Canada’s Federal Court.

Today, we cannot sell our rapeseed abroad and other products are being affected too. Just recently the Netherlands rejected a consignment of Canadian honey because it was contaminated with GM material. Organic farmers in our district have a particular problem because they cannot meet the GM-free standard for organic certification.

Farmers dread the financial consequences of litigation. Today I face legal bills of Canadian $160,000 plus Canadian $ 40,000. Monsanto’s legal bill is Canadian $ 400,000. If I lose I will have to pay Monsanto’s costs as well. But I have to fight. I know from the support I have received from all over the world that farmers need to protect their rights to choose the technology they use, the crops they grow, and the seeds they save. Particularly in developing countries farmers’ livelihoods depend upon their right and ability to select and save appropriate seed and maintain an ecological balance on their farms.

I have filed a counter suit against Monsanto. I know many farmers are watching how my struggle proceeds. You can follow my case on www.percyschmeiser.com.


Percy Schmeiser

Phone (+1) 306 369 2520; Fax (+1) 306 369 2304; E-mail rschm@telusplanet.net



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