Intimidation Tactics

Let’s recap.

Percy Schmeiser lives in Bruno, in the western Canadian region of Saskatchewan, In 1996, Monsanto began selling a transgenic oil-seed rape resistant to Roundup herbicide, which eliminates all plants except those with a specially introduced gene. In 1997, Saskatchewan enjoyed a boom in rape planting on account of the advantageous prices of the crop. Schmeiser, who has always grown rape, noted the herbicide-resistant variety in the fields near his own. He asked Monsanto about it and discovered it was genetically modified. In 1998, he used the seeds from the previous harvest for the new sowing season, as he had always done in the past,. That August Monsanto reported him for appropriating transgenic seeds and planting them on his own land without paying for the property rights. When it sells these seeds, Monsanto commonly demands the signing of a contract envisaging the annual purchase with a pledge not to use them again after the harvest. Following unannounced surprise checks, many American and Canadian farmers have received the same charge as Schmeiser. Feeling intimidated, they usually give in immediately and pay the damages requested by the multinational. Schmeiser, instead, argues that he did not buy the seeds illegally, that he did not use them deliberately and that his field was contaminated by plants in the adjacent fields (rape seed live for a long time and are easily carried by the wind). At that point, Schmeiser sued Monsanto and became its bête noire. Up until 2001, that is. That year the trial was held and Schmeiser lost. He had, the court ruled violated the Monsanto patent, and the sentence was upheld in appeal last September.

The court acknowledged that Schmeiser had not bought the Monsanto seeds from anyone, but it failed to mention the fact that he did not treat the harvest crop with Roundup (the only advantage in having transgenic rape) and that Monsanto trespassed on his property to collect samples of his oil without prior warning. The judges, finally, sustained only the evidence supplied by Monsanto. Their sentence is a dangerous declaration of principle: if plants and seeds are brought to a field by accidental causes, the farmer who owns that field also owns the seed. If the plants and seeds are patented, he violates the law regulating patents protection rights and is thus guilty of a crime. In other words, if my field is accidentally contaminated by transgenic plants, besides the nuisance of an unwanted presence, I also have to fork out cash. Alas, the contamination is inevitable: that has been demonstrated in over the last few years with commercialization of transgenic products—and it’s a fact of life anyway.

At which point it’s reasonable to imagine that the drive to market GMOs in Europe is motivated by the selfsame boorish strategy of market conquest, complete with accidental contaminations, legally tolerable ceiling levels and consequent intimidation and punishment by virtue of unacceptable patents on living material.

First published in La Stampa 24/11/2002

Adapted by John Irving

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