Monsanto meets its match

18th April 2000

A man with a quarter-century in elected office and a pickup truck with a vanity licence plate bearing his name is hardly afraid of being the centre of attention.

But even for Percy Schmeiser the notoriety from his fight with an American multinational over canola seed has become a bit overwhelming.

``I'm supposed to be semi-retired,'' he says. ``I'd rather be fishing.''

Instead, Schmeiser, 69, who has farmed near this town of 700 people for more than 40 years, is in hot water with Monsanto Co., the biochemical giant. It alleges he violated its patent by using the company's genetically modified canola seed in his fields without permission.

Monsanto and its Canadian subsidiary launched a lawsuit against Schmeiser two years ago. Attempts at mediation have failed. The trial is set to begin June 5 in Saskatoon.

Monsanto wants Schmeiser to admit breaking the rules and to pay the same $15-per-acre (about $37 per hectare) fee it charges 20,000 farmers across Western Canada for using its patented canola seed with a herbicide-tolerant gene. It's also seeking an unspecified sum for the infringement as a deterrent to others.

But rather than settle with Monsanto, as have about 50 other farmers across the Prairies facing the same accusations, Schmeiser is fighting back.

The seeds must have simply blown on to some of his 560 hectares from neighbours' fields and trucks taking crops for processing, Schmeiser says. He first noticed it in 1997, he says, when he was spraying herbicide on what he thought were weeds around the edges of his fields. They survived and spread.

It turns out the plants were Monsanto's genetically altered canola. Schmeiser has launched a counter lawsuit, seeking $10 million from Monsanto for contaminating his farm and the environment, defamation and trespassing to get crop samples.

``I didn't want to be a hero or a saint but felt that what was happening was wrong,'' says Schmeiser, who decided to fight Monsanto after talking it over with Louise, his wife of 48 years. ``We felt our freedoms were being challenged and we had to take a stand.''

That stand has raised Schmeiser to a public profile he never imagined. There have been the obvious comparisons with David and Goliath. But there are also global implications for the business of genetically modified foods and family farmers' rights in an increasingly corporate industry.

Schmeiser's fight has captured media attention from around the world, particularly Europe, where the debate over genetically modified organisms is most intense. Reporters from Dutch TV and newspapers in Britain and France are the latest visitors to Bruno, 75 kilometres east of Saskatoon.

``Sometimes I wake up asking myself what I've got myself into, but I've never doubted it was the right thing to do, ''says Schmeiser, who was mayor of Bruno in the 1960s and '70s and a two-term Liberal member of the Saskatchewan legislature.

``But I'm also not stupid,'' says the father of five and grandfather of 13. ``I know who I'm up against and I know they've got deep pockets.''

St. Louis-based Monsanto is perhaps best known as a maker of PCBs and the Vietnam War herbicide Agent Orange. It has 30,000 employees around the world and rang up profits of $575 million (U.S.) on sales of $9.1 billion (U.S.) last year.

For four years, Monsanto has sold its Roundup Ready canola seed, so named because it's engineered to withstand the company's weed killer, Roundup. The company claims the seed increases farmers' efficiency by allowing them to spray with just one herbicide, eliminating the need for more chemicals in production.

But farmers who want to use the Roundup Ready canola must sign stringent contracts with the company. They pay for one-time use of the seed and cannot save leftovers for future use or sale.

Craig Evans of Monsanto Canada says the case against Schmeiser isn't about picking on a farming pensioner but standing up for the 20,000 canola growers who pay to use the seed. If they shell out $15 an acre but then have someone else get it for free, their investment isn't protected, he says.

``That's a $15,000 advantage on a thousand acres and that's not fair,'' says Evans, general manager of biotechnology in Monsanto's Winnipeg office. ``It's important that we keep a level playing field.''

Evans also rejects Schmeiser's claims that the seed could have blown on to his fields from passing trucks or neighbours using Roundup Ready: ``If we didn't feel our case was that strong, we probably wouldn't be where we're at today.''

But critics say the lawsuit is about nothing more than fattening the corporation's bottom line. In a letter to Monsanto Canada president Ray Mowling, Grade 10 student Natalie Martin slams the company as ``petty and unforgiving.''

``I honestly think that you have nothing to gain by this except the guilt of taking an elderly couple's money,'' writes Martin, of Petawawa, Ont., in one of 500 letters sent to Monsanto and copied to Schmeiser. ``You know you have more power and money over them and that makes it easier for you to win.''

There have also been three times as many phone calls and donations from $5 to $1,000 - more than $10,000 in total - to help pay for legal costs which, Schmeiser says, approach $100,000 even with lots of free time donated by lawyers.

Louise Schmeiser, 68, who has high blood pressure, blacked out last summer and fell down the cellar stairs damaging her neck and eye. It's impossible to definitively lay blame, her husband admits, but the stress at the time was intense.

But Louise is determined to keep fighting. She's angry that instead of approaching them, Monsanto used private investigators to snoop in their fields and visit the local canola cleaning mill to examine their crops.

``I couldn't go to Monsanto and take anything of theirs,'' she says. ``What I hope comes of this is some protection of farmers' rights. If they win this case, then those rights are gone.''

Many of the residents of Bruno are tired of hearing about Schmeiser and Monsanto. Some are jealous of his success over the years or angry with him after run-ins over farming practices, one resident says.

``But even those farmers that don't like him still want to see him win,'' the resident says. ``They just don't want to admit it.''

As he drives along the road looking at fields that his grandfather settled early last century, Schmeiser remains convinced of two things: He did nothing wrong and he cannot turn back now.

He points to the remnants of a Roundup Ready plant in one of his fields just off the road used by others to take their crops to the canola-crushing plant. Other trucks rumble by without proper tarps; others nearby have nothing to keep the seeds from blowing in the wind for kilometres, he says.

``It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know how that got there,'' he says.

``I know this is a wrong I have to right. If my father and grandfather were alive, this is what they'd want me to do.''

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