Court rules farmer illegally grew crops he never
by Liane C. Casten
In These Times, June 2001
In a landmark victory for corporations heavily invested in
genetically engineered foods, on March 29 a Canadian judge ruled
that farmer Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Saskatchewan must pay $105,000
to Monsanto for illegally growing the company's genetically engineered
rapeseed, from which canola oil is made. But Schmeiser says he
never planted Monsanto's seeds. "How can somebody put anything
on someone else's land, then claim it's theirs and say, 'We'll
take it. We'll sue him. We'll fine him'?" he asks.
In 1995, Monsanto put on the market a rapeseed that had been
engineered to be immune to its Roundup Ready herbicide. This means
a farmer can spray the herbicide over a planted field and kill
all the weeds growing there, but not hurt the crop. The company
sells the rapeseed- about half the rape planted in Saskatchewan
in 1999 came from Monsanto seeds-but keeps the rights to the DNA
itself. Thus, rather than save seeds from last year's crop to
use this year, as many do, and as Schmeiser traditionally has
done, farmers must buy new rapeseed from Monsanto each year, and
allow the company to inspect their fields.
Schmeiser, however, never bought Monsanto's rapeseed. He'd
never gone to the meetings Monsanto held for farmers to extol
the benefits of genetically engineered foods, and he had no idea
that finding Monsanto's rapeseed on his farm might make him in
any way liable. However, having grown rapeseed for more than 40
years, he knew something was amiss when he sprayed Roundup Ready
around the electricity poles at the edge of his farm and it failed
to kill the oilseed rape plants growing there.
Schmeiser figures the seeds came from his neighbor's fields,
which had been planted with Monsanto's seeds, via wind, pollen
drift and bees. "You can't control it," Schmeiser says.
"It might end up 10 miles, 20 miles away. It's all over the
place, it cross-pollinates."
It came out in court that Monsanto hired a Saskatoon private
investigator (from a firm founded by former Royal Canadian Mounted
Police officers) to trespass onto Schmeiser's and other farmers'
lands to obtain rapeseed samples. Then, a Monsanto representative
secretly approached the Humboldt Flour Mill where Schmeiser brought
his harvested seed for cleaning, and asked for a sample for DNA
testing. The sample was found to contain Monsanto's patented DNA.
Monsanto's lawyers did not care how the seeds arrived on Schmeiser's
land. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement, asking
the court for all the profits from his 1998 rapeseed crop, the
return of "all seeds or crop" containing the patented
genes, punitive damages for illegally obtaining the seeds, and
the company's court costs. Monsanto justifies its actions by stating
there are farmers who might be cheating and saving seed, or borrowing
a bit of seed from neighbors.
Schmeiser was just one of more than 1,000 farmers that Monsanto
had investigated, according to the Guardian of London. Rick Weiss
reports in the Washington Post that Monsanto "sponsors a
toll-free tip line to help farmers blow the whistle on their neighbors.
The company also has placed radio ads broadcasting the names of
non-compliant growers caught planting the company's seeds. Critics
say those tactics are fraying the social fabric that holds farming
Unlike hundreds of similarly accused North American farmers
who have reached out-of-court settlements with Monsanto, Schmeiser
refused to settle and instead fought back. "I never put those
plants on my land," he says. "The question is, where
do Monsanto's rights end and mine begin?"
Schmeiser does not see why he should be penalized for a natural
accident. But this recent court ruling means that farmers must
now accept liability for any genetically engineered seeds that
end up on their land. "If you have a patent you should be
able to control it," he says. "My many years of developing
canola strains in organic farming are now ruined by this contamination."