The payment was nothing more than a drop in the bucket, but its impact could prove to have a lasting and significant ripple effect. Last spring, after a decade-long, David-and-Goliath battle that pitted Canadian Prairie canola farmer Percy Schmeiser against multinational seed giant Monsanto, the 77-year-old folk hero won a $660 cheque from the multinational company. The money was hardly the point. The farmer won a moral victory that might offer hope for his peers around the world who continue to face similar struggles: he won the right to freedom of speech.
In a landmark case, Mr. Schmeiser tried and failed to win a different kind of victory: the right to seed. Beginning in 1997 and ending in 2004, with a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Monsanto’s favour, the farmer was sued for violating the agrichemical company patent on genetically modified (GM) canola seeds, called Round-up Ready, and engineered to resist Monsanto-brand herbicide. The court stated that plant genes and modified cells can be patented. Mr. Schmeiser had always maintained his farm had, in fact, been contaminated with GM seed that had blown onto his canola fields.
Canola, generally consumed as an oil or fat in processed products such as margarine, was developed through plant breeding techniques in the 1970s in Canada – the name refers to “Canada oil”. A strain of rapeseed suitable for intensive farming and related to mustard, it is processed into a cooking and table oil with the naturally bold flavor removed, in part, through heat treatment. Inexpensive to produce and purchase, it has low levels of saturated fat and is suitable for high-temperature cooking in deep fryers and for other supply fast-food needs. Little wonder it became the country’s major oilseed crop, especially after the introduction in 1995 of GM canola. Today, more than 80% of canola production in Canada is GM.
Because the plant cross-pollinates, the dominance of GM seed has pushed producers such as Alberta’s Highland Crossing farmer Tony Marshall out of the field – literally. Mr. Marshall produces a cold-pressed, non-GM canola oil that embraces the plant’s aromatic roots. He used to grow his own seed. But given the issues of cross-contamination, he could no longer guarantee his own canola crops as non-GM and has since sought out farmers in remote locales. He works with farmers up north, in Peace River country, and to be certain he sends out random samples for DNA testing.
On their long road to victory, the Schmeisers also lost their status as canola growers, along with many years of research spent developing varieties suited to their environment. The seeds were contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene. It’s an all-too common story.
The Organic Agriculture Protection Fund Committee, a group of Prairie certified organic farmers, including the seed-saving activist and protector/grower of Canada’s first Ark product Red Fife wheat, Marc Loiselle, has been fighting for more than six years to get compensation for losses due to contamination of certified organic crops and fields by GM canola owned by Monsanto Canada and Bayer Crop Science. The fact that the introduction of GM wheat was stopped, and that no new GM crops have been introduced into Canadian agriculture since the committee began lobbying for legal action are two small victories – for now. But in December of last year, they were once again turned down, this time by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Six months earlier, there was a pull in the opposite direction – a positive one for farmers – south of the border. The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) announced that the US Patent and Trademark Office rejected four key Monsanto patents relating to GM crops that are at the heart of a struggle very reminiscent of the Schmeiser case, with the biotech firm filing patent infringement lawsuits against American farmers for the ‘crime’ of saving seed from one year’s crop to replant the following year.
In 2005, a new crop of the same offending Monsanto canola sprouted on the Schmeisers’ farm, but this time the farmer and his wife, Louise, took care of pulling out the plants and sent Monsanto the bill. The tally: $660. What came next was tantamount to a gag order offered in exchange for payment, but the Schmeisers stood firm. Monsanto has a longstanding reputation for getting its way, but the Schmeisers would tough it out, as they did many years ago when the company offered to withdraw the original lawsuit if the couple agreed to buy their seed from Monsanto and pay the biotech firm a fee.
Finally, in the winter of 2008, the Schmeisers won the right to disclose the terms of their settlement with Monsanto. At the same time, there was news of several Canadian farmers who signed Monsanto’s release form – 16 alone in 2007 – who are forbidden to reveal the terms of their agreements. It had taken the Schmeisers an additional two-and-a-half years and more legal fees, but when they received their cheque for $660 in the small-claims court case, it came with full disclosure.
Tons of Oil
In 2007, the Schmeisers were honoured with the Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel Prize) for their tireless campaigning, which continued after Monsanto successful lawsuit against them, sending a message around the world warning farmers they no longer had the right to save seed. The jurors applauded the couple ‘for their courage in defending biodiversity and farmers’ rights, and challenging the environmental and moral perversity of current interpretations of patent laws’.
Meanwhile, GM Canola continues to spread around world. In 2008, in spite of major protests, Monsanto and Bayer finally won the legal right to have GM canola planted in much of Australia. With the push to reduce, if not eliminate transfats from restaurant chains, the demand for canola oil is on the rise. As the world’s major canola-oil producer, Canada has plans for a 15-million-tonne target by 2015 – an increase of 65 percent – that will mean planting an extra 4 million acres of the crop, mainly displacing the country’s largest crop, wheat.
As for the open-book ruling, Mr. Schmeiser commented in a newspaper interview, it’s ‘a great victory for farmers all over the world … an opportunity to have some recourse on a corporation when they are contaminated’.
Canada, food Journalist for The Economist and The Globe and Mail
This article is published on the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.