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Supreme court to hear Schmeiser vs. Monsanto

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Monday, Jan. 5, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- On January 20, the eyes of the world will turn to an unlikely place, the Supreme Court of Canada, as Percy Schmeiser has his day in court. Schmeiser likely needs little introduction to farmers in western Canada. The lawsuit brought against him by chemical giant Monsanto, alleging he grew Roundup Ready canola without paying the associated fee to Monsanto, made Schmeiser famous around the world. What distinguishes Schmeiser from the many other farmers sued or threatened with lawsuits by Monsanto is his dogged determination to carry on the fight, even after losing in the lower courts.

On January 20, Schmeiser's appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court in a hearing that is sure to garner the attention of farmers, governments, activists and transnational companies around the world. Though many farmers might not think it an important issue, they are wrong. What happens in that courtroom will affect their lives for years to come.

A bit of a recap. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for growing Roundup Ready canola without paying the $15 per acre fee Monsanto charges. Monsanto has a patent on the gene that confers resistance to glyphosate herbicides like Roundup and Monsanto claims that any canola plant carrying that gene rightfully belongs to it.

Monsanto collected samples of Schmeiser's crop and found some of it contained the Roundup Ready gene. However, in court, Monsanto gave up trying to prove that Schmeiser had obtained the seed illegally. Rather, Monsanto fell back on the argument that it did not matter how the seed got there. It was theirs, and Schmeiser should have informed them about it.

Schmeiser maintained that his canola was contaminated with the Roundup Ready variety by seed blowing off of trucks or by cross pollination with neighboring canola Roundup Ready canola crops. Schmeiser gave evidence to show he had not benefited by growing the canola as he did not spray the crop with Roundup or try to sell it as seed.

The judge agreed with Monsanto that the crop belonged to it, no matter how it got there, and awarded damages and costs to Monsanto.

Farmers fall into two camps regarding Schmeiser's case. For some it is simple. Companies need to be able to patent plants and genes or there will be no more research and farmers will be hurt by this.

Others find it more complex. They argue that it is a bit of a stretch for a company to claim the right of ownership over a plant variety when that variety is the product not just of the insertion of a gene, but of thousands of years of breeding by farmers throughout history. Roundup Ready corn, for example, utilizes the characteristics that were bred into corn by farmers carefully selecting superior seeds for thousands of years. They argue that corn, as with other major crops, is a heritage that belongs to everyone - a collective gift from farmers of the past to those of the present.

Supporters of Schmeiser also maintain that the right of farmers to save their own seed is being taken away by patents on seeds and plants. They fear that, with the concentration of ownership in the seed industry and reductions in public funding for plant breeding, farmers will one day have to pay for every seed they sow.

They also worry about "genetic pollution" - the escape of patented and undesirable genes into the environment. Roundup Ready canola, for example, has "leaked" into even the foundation seedstocks of some canola varieties. This widespread contamination has made it impossible for organic farmers to grow canola, as they can't guarantee it to be free from genetically modified seed.

They also argue that no one should be able to patent a living creature, whether plant or animal, since they do not qualify as "inventions". Living creatures can reproduce on their own, and cannot be contained, a fact supported by the spread of the Roundup Ready canola gene.

Schmeiser's supporters also point to the implications for farmers around the world of an environment that allows a few transnational companies to eventually own the world's genetic resources. They fear it will simply be one more way for the developed world to extract wealth from poor countries. There is some support for this. The United Nations Development Program has published estimates suggesting that future annual payments of patent fees and royalties from Third World countries to private corporations based in the North may exceed their annual debt payments already being transferred to the North.

They also dispute the notion that research will end if companies cannot patent their varieties. Pulse crops in Saskatchewan show a different model. The many new varieties available to growers were developed using farmers' checkoff money. The Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, which allocates this funding, decided not to apply for protection for these varieties so that farmers could freely save their own seed.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net