Percy Schmeiser with Marya Nijland, Theresa Wolfwood and a UVIC student

A large crowd of Victoria residents and students cheered a genuine Canadian hero recently when Percy Schmeiser came to our city to tell us about a brave act of defiance against a powerful multinational corporation. (An audio cassette of the evening with Percy's speech is available from BBCF for $10 - click here to ask for one.) For updates see:

This story starts on a prosperous and successful canola farm in Bruno, Saskatchewan. Percy and Louise Schmeiser have been farming there for more than fifty years on land that his grandparents homesteaded. Over the years Louise has researched and developed varieties of canola seeds that grew well under local conditions, which were resistant to diseases and could be sown in successive years. Percy as a politician worked for farmers’ rights; He believes the important issues are the property rights of farmers versus the intellectual property rights of corporations, the possible hazards of GMOs in the food chain, the danger to the environment, control of farmers through patent law, the control of the global food supply and the culture of fear and suspicion that corporations foster in farm communities.

In August, 1998, Monsanto, the multinational chemical giant (that produces Agent Orange and Roundup as well as 90% of GM seeds in the USA), using their own private police force (mainly ex-RCMP) found its GM canola growing on Schmeiser property and charged them with violation of its patent rights. The Schmeisers did not even know a Monsanto employee, let alone buy its seed. Because they understood the importance of their situation the Schmeisers decided they would face financial ruin and the loss of their home and farm rather than agree to the charges and so they stood up and they defied the giant corporation.

Monsanto has sown a culture of suspicion by advertising a toll-free line for farmers to call in (anonymously) and get rewards (fishing trips and leather jackets) for reporting neighbours they think may have “technology violations”, meaning using Monsanto seeds without contract or purchase. They send threatening letters to many farmers (copies on file) demanding they pay fines and keep the matter secret. This is what the Schmeisers would not do. They had never bought or used Monsanto seed, but their neighbours do. All levels of court agreed that seed and pollen can travel by wind, water, animals and farm machinery; the courts also ruled that it was irrelevant how the GMOs got there. Even if a farmer does not know they have contaminated plants growing (after all, they look the same as others) the courts said farmers were responsible for violation of patent law. Thus the Schmeisers were responsible and they had to give their crop and seeds to the corporation. Fifty years of valuable research were lost – a neighbour said this was the company’s intent from the beginning – to get these precious seeds.

But the determined couple believed they had an obligation to farmers, the future of agriculture in Canada and their descendents to fight Monsanto’s charges. They also were committed to the moral and ethical principles of the rights of farmers to own their own seeds and plant them without fear and reprisals. They went to the appeal court which said it did not agree with all the rulings of the lower court – but it upheld them anyhow. Support poured in from around the world to help them with testimony and funds for legal expenses. With almost half a million dollars in expenses, they took their case to the Supreme Court which, in a split decision, ruled this May that the patent holder on a GM gene owns and controls any higher life form it lives in – right up to humans. (What did you eat today? Who owns you?)

The court did rule the farm couple were not responsible for Monsanto’s million spent on legal fees. When the Schmeisers left their home to hear the ruling, a one hour drive into Saskatoon, Louise wondered aloud if they would still have a roof over their heads that night. Monsanto had already placed a caveat on their farm so they could not borrow against it. This ruling, a partial victory, saved their home and farm.

Percy Schmeiser at VIPIRG library, University of Victoria

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that since Monsanto has ownership and control – the key word here - of its GM products; it follows that it will also have responsibility for the spread of its GMOs and carriers. This possible liability is the issue of a class action suit against Monsanto launched by the organic farmers of Saskatchewan claiming that the spread of GM pollen and seeds contaminates their farms. The Schmeisers are supporting this case rather than bring their own liability charge against Monsanto. This month, assuming no delays are granted, Louise Schmeiser is claiming $140 from Monsanto in Small Debts Court. When she found its canola growing beside her organic garden, she sprayed it with Roundup and it did not die. After many efforts to get Monsanto to clear it away as they publicly promise to do, she hired students to pull it out, take it away and burn it for $140. Watch for the results of this case!

Schmeiser warns us about a new issue that has received little attention – PharmaPlants - a new kind of genetic modification which produces drugs in GM corn more cheaply than in laboratories. There is a major campaign to introduce GM rice for this purpose in the USA as it more reliable than corn. Blood thinners, growth hormones, blood clotters and contraceptives are already grown this way. The danger of ingesting these drugs as food products is staggering. Imagine a pregnant woman eating corn that has been fertilized by pollen from GM plants producing contraceptives, or surgery patients eating that with blood thinners.

In 1996 farmers in Canada were wooed by the lure of GMO canola and soybeans that were touted to have higher and more nutritious yields and require less and fewer chemicals – a big appeal, said Schmeiser as chemicals were one of the major costs of farming and farmers were beginning to worry about the health effects of agricultural chemicals. He told us that Saskatchewan uses one-third of all farm chemicals used in Canada; the province has the country’s highest rate of breast and prostrate cancers. Three companies sold GMO canola which cross-fertilized and produced a new superweed . It has spread across the plains and farmers of all crops are using three times as much chemical to control it. Monsanto claims it will produce a new chemical to control the superweed . The claim that GMOs will have a higher yield and feed a hungry world is not true, according to Schmeiser, yields have decreased and the nutritious quality has decreased. Since the patent on Monsanto’s Roundup has expired, the company has bought up seed producers around the world; it is now the 2nd largest global seed company and through seeds it can control the herbicide market.

Percy Schmeiser fervently believes that farming is an important occupation for young Canadians. He encourages young farmers to be organic; they will get a fair price for their crop and make a decent living while maintaining a healthy farm and environment and producing healthy foods for Canada, independent of the global seed and chemical companies.

The Schmeisers still own their farm, but they don’t grow canola. Their crop is now oats and lentils; they miss the familiar glorious sight of fields of golden yellow flowers, but they sleep well at night. TW