Seeds of (genetic) change
Canadian farmer sounds the alarm of the corporate-created monster possibly heading this way
In 1947 Percy Schmeiser and his wife Louise began growing canola on their Saskatchewan farm located about 250 miles north of the Montana-North Dakota border. Each year they saved and reused the seeds, harvesting them from the plants that thrived best in the soil and climate conditions in that part of the great Canadian plains.
In 1997, the Schmeisers’ world changed forever.
Neighboring farmers had began using genetically modified (GM) canola seeds produced by Monsanto Canada Inc., the multinational giant that for the past 10 years has worked to market GM crops, including corn, rice and wheat.
Today the Schmeisers no longer farm; instead they find themselves pitted in court and world opinion against one of the world’s largest corporations. As a result, Percy Schmeiser has become a modern-day Paul Revere, traveling the world to warn of a frightening and potentially devastating future for agriculture, in particular family and organic farmers.
Last week the 73-year-old Schmeiser passed through Chico, where he gave a talk at Chico State University. The next day he met with members of the Lundberg family rice operation in Richvale, where this strange new world of agriculture is viewed with a sort of anxious confidence that, with some protections already in place, the California rice industry will survive the threat of genetically engineered crops.
Canola, known in other parts of the world as rapeseed, is grown to make cooking oil. The crushed seed pulp is fed to cattle. The name is a combination of the words “Canada” and “oil.” Today, genetically altered Monsanto canola has replaced nearly every other variety in Canada.
The Certified Organic Association of British Columbia reports the canola gene pool is now so contaminated that growing organic canola has become almost impossible. Britain’s The Independent newspaper has written that a British government study has found that GM rapeseed was interbreeding and transferring its herbicide-resistant traits on a large scale with conventional crops, as well as wild turnip, a related weed.
Seven years ago, Monsanto’s genetically modified canola seeds took root on Schmeiser’s farm after they apparently drifted out of the open bed of a pick-up truck driven by a neighbor, who had contracted with Monsanto to grow “Round-Up-ready canola.”
The Monsanto seeds produce a crop engineered to survive spraying with the herbicide Round-Up. The idea, brilliant in its marketing approach but alarming in its application, kills unwanted weeds but not the desired crop. And the farmer, who’s contracted with the company, agrees not to harvest seeds at the end of each year, but rather purchase new ones from Monsanto. The farmers must also agree to use only Round-Up brand herbicide, another Monsanto product.
Schmeiser never entered into such a contract, but when the seeds inadvertently landed on his farm and produced the Round-Up-immune crop, he did what he’d done for the previous 50 years—collected the seeds and replanted them. He said he noticed that the canola plants growing near the telephone poles at the edges of his fields were not reacting to the herbicide he sprayed there. He just figured those plants were volunteers that, after years of being sprayed by the power company clearing the area around the poles, had become immune to herbicide.
Schmeiser’s was hardly a unique situation. Other farmers who’d not contracted with Monsanto had the same thing happen.
Eventually the company found out, either through the investigations of its gene police—former Royal Mounties in Canada and ex-Pinkerton detectives in this country—or via the tip line other farmers are encouraged to use against their neighbors. ("To report any technology violations please call 1-888RRC-TIPS.")
When its genetically modified plants are detected growing on those farms without contracts, Monsanto sends a threatening notice about what it wants in return for the “violation of its proprietary rights.”
This letter was sent to another Saskatchewan farmer in November 1998:
“Prior to making any final decision as to what steps we will be taking and in an attempt to resolve this issue in a timely and economical manner, we are prepared to refrain from commencing any legal proceedings against you subject to the following: 1. You forthwith pay to Monsanto the following sum: 250 [acres] X $115 [cost per acre] = $28,750. 2. You acknowledge Monsanto has the right to take samples from all of your owned or leased land and storage bins for three years from the date of this letter. 3. You agree not to disclose the specific terms and conditions of this settlement agreement to any third party. 4. You agree that Monsanto shall at its sole discretion have the right to disclose the facts and settlement terms associated with the investigation and this settlement agreement. Acceptance of this offer will be acknowledged by forwarding to Monsanto a certified cheque for $28,750 and a duplicate signed copy of this letter by December 14, 1998.”
The letterhead that carries this message includes this motto: “MONSANTO Food*Health*Hope.”
Frightened by the implications, most farmers will bow to these demands. Schmeiser, who received his letter in August 1998, did not.
Schmeiser is a fit, wiry man with dark-red hair that he combs back, a ruddy complexion and a very pleasant demeanor. His accent is a cross between the McKenzie Brothers and the movie Fargo.
He’s been more than just a farmer for the past 50 years, having spent 33 years in public service with the provincial government of Saskatchewan (the equivalent to our state Legislature), as a land-use consultant and as mayor of his hometown Bruno, population 650. He is articulate and comfortable in front of the media and large crowds. And, as he said, he “knows how things work.”
Refusing to buckle under, Schmeiser was taken to court by the corporate giant, where the judge ruled that it didn’t matter how the seeds had gotten into Schmeiser’s field. With that decision, the judge in effect ruled that Schmeiser no longer owned his seeds or plants.
“That’s what really blew my case worldwide,” he said. “The judge ruled that I should have known I was using Monsanto seeds. I wished I’d had a jury with farmers who knew how this all works.”
Monsanto offered to drop the case if Schmeiser would pay the company $300,000, plus $150,000 in legal fees, and sign a non-disclosure statement that said in essence that the genetically engineered canola does not cross-pollinate nor blow in the wind.
A federal Court of Appeals in Canada consists of three judges who consider only points of fact and possible errors in law by the lower court. Such a court found that the first judge had erred in point of law, but it upheld the ruling anyway.
“I think they wanted it to go to the Supreme Court to become a landmark case on property rights, health and patenting of life,” Schmeiser said.
He argues that Monsanto has a patent only on a gene and thinks the court may rule that the company’s patent covers only the process of placing the gene in the seed, not the seeds themselves and, by extension, the plants they produce.
“That is just one gene out of the thousands in a seed, yet they are claiming ownership of the seed.
“The question is, who can patent life? And where do you stop? Animals? Human beings? Who owns life?”
On Jan. 20, the Canadian Supreme Court picked up the case, and a final verdict is expected within the next five months. The world is watching.
“There is a new fear culture that has been established,” Schmeiser said last week at a press conference in the lobby of the Heritage Inn, where he and Louise stayed while in Chico. “When the gene police show up at farms and say they are ‘ex-mounted police,’ the farmers don’t hear the ‘ex’ part and they think, ‘My goodness, what have I done wrong?’
“It is real intimidation and harassment, and then they suspect it is their neighboring farmers who’ve turned them in. It’s leading to a breakdown of the social fabric.
“I’m a third-generation farmer; my grandparents came from Europe and settled in the United States. My parents came to Canada, where they worked together with others to build this country. Now look what’s happening.”
Suicide, he said, is now the leading cause of death among Canadian farmers.
Though he has an estimated $300,000 in legal bills at this point, Schmeiser takes no money for his appearances; he asks only that his and Louise’s lodgings be covered wherever they stay. He was brought to Chico by CSU’s A.S. Recycling, the Bidwell Institute for Environmental Affairs and the Chico Peace and Justice Center.
His talk, which drew about 650 people to the Bell Memorial Union Feb. 11, reportedly brought in about $1,000, which organizers donated to Schmeiser.
Grant Lundberg, the rice company’s CEO, said they are watching the development of GM seeds closely. Monsanto does not yet offer a “Round-Up-ready rice,” though the company is working on it. Reportedly such research is going on right here in Butte County.
(Rice is also at the center of another developing technology being explored by the pharmaceutical industry. Here a human gene with certain abilities such as thinning blood is spliced into a rice plant. The plants are grown and harvested. From them a drug with blood-thinning abilities is extracted and marketed. The possible consequences of this strain of rice, or any other so-called pharma-crop, cross-pollinating with rice grown for human consumption, however, are staggering to consider.)
But because of the California Rice Commission, Lundberg said, there are already laws in place to protect the purity of rice varieties and guard against cross-pollination. Those laws set up protocols for how the seeds are sown, the creation of buffer zones and the proper cleaning of farm equipment.
“There are 35 varieties of rice,” he said. “What we do is all customer-driven. We’ve got protocols approved by committee and got a critical piece of legislation passed. The corn and soybean guys never had anything like this.”
Still the company keeps a wary watch on the technology front.
“We are very concerned because we have a market that does not want GMs in their food,” he said. “And we have to keep the market happy. That is what pays the bills.”
Lundberg said that, while his company does not agree with what Monsanto is currently doing with GMs, he keeps an open mind toward research and development.
“What if down the road there is technology that is good?” he asked. “Maybe in 50 years they’re gonna hit on something, so you have to be a broad-minded person. Right now we are trying to maintain purity, and yes it is a scary issue.”
“There is no such thing as recalling a life form. This has never existed before,” Schmeiser warned before he left Chico. “This is scary.”
He was on his way to Mendocino County, where he’d been invited by the supporters of Measure H, an initiative that would ban the planting of GM seeds anywhere in the county. Next month he is headed to Mexico to address the government, which has expressed concerns about GMs making their way across the border.
“We stood up to Monsanto and lost 50 years of research and development,” Schmeiser said.
Monsanto has argued that GMs represent a chance to feed the world.
“We don’t need Monsanto for that,” Schmeiser argues. “We can grow enough food now. It’s politics, transportation and distribution that create the problems.”
Percy Schmeiser says the time to stop the development and production of GMs is now.
“There is no such thing as containment, no such thing as co-existence. The GM is the dominate gene.”
But the genie is already out of the bottle.