Farmer challenged Monsanto | At 83, Sask. farmer Percy Schmeiser is an in-demand speaker around the world
Anti-GMO activists gathered across Canada late last month for a day of protest, but the man who many consider the most visible and outspoken opponent of GMOs didn’t attend.
Instead, Percy Schmeiser spent the weekend with his wife Louise at their home in Bruno, Sask., about 100 kilometres away.
Schmeiser, who was a constant thorn in Monsanto’s side for a decade or more beginning in the late 1990s, received several invitations to appear at anti-GMO events throughout Canada.
But after years of fighting the global corporation, he opted this year to stay home and enjoy the simpler things in life.
“I would have liked to have attended some of these events, but I have some local functions to attend, with graduation and stuff going on, so I couldn’t get away,” Schmeiser said.
“I’ve missed, over the last decade or more, on birthday parties, hockey games, figure skating competitions, graduations and so on and … at 83 years of age, how much time do I have left?”
Regardless of how Schmeiser’s high-profile battle with Monsanto is perceived, there is little doubt that the former grain and oilseed farmer from central Saskatchewan has led an eventful life since Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola was discovered on his farm in the late 1990s.
Depending on who you believe, Monsanto’s canola was found on Schmeiser’s land in variable densities, ranging from zero percent in some samples up to nearly 100 percent in others.
Schmeiser never acknowledged that he was growing Monsanto canola without a technical use agreement.
Instead, he steadfastly maintained that Monsanto’s canola had taken root on his land unintentionally, through pollen drift, seed drift or some other method.
Determined to prove his innocence, Schmeiser became involved in a prolonged legal battle with one of the most powerful life science companies in the world.
His case against Monsanto was heard at various levels of the Canadian judicial system.
Initially, he was convicted of using Monsanto’s product illegally, without a technology use agreement, and ordered to pay the company damages of roughly $20,000.
Eventually, the case was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, where judges upheld a lower court’s ruling that Schmeiser had illegally cultivated canola plants that contained a gene patented by Monsanto.
However, the top court also ruled that Schmeiser would not be required to pay damages to Monsanto.
Instead, Monsanto and Schmeiser would be responsible for covering their own legal costs.
For Schmeiser, that cost was estimated at $400,000 to $500,000.
It was covered by Schmeiser’s personal equity and donations to a legal defence fund set up by sympathetic farmers and organizations around the world.
Notably, the Supreme Court also suggested that greater legislative clarity was needed to accurately determine the rights and legal relations of farmers and life science companies that hold patents on genes contained in agricultural crops.
After the Supreme Court ruling was handed down in 2004, Schmeiser, then 73, told the media that his battle with Monsanto was over.
But a few years later, he was back in court, this time seeking damages from Monsanto after the company had failed to remove volunteer Roundup Ready canola plants that had appeared again on his farmland.
According to Schmeiser’s account, Monsanto was prepared to remove the plants but only if Schmeiser and his family would agree to sign a waiver forfeiting the right to sue the company or speak publicly about the case.
Schmeiser refused and instead took Monsanto to small claims court, seeking compensation of roughly $600, the amount required to remove the volunteer canola plants by hand and have them destroyed.
The company eventually agreed to pay the damages in an out-of-court settlement in 2008.
“We had Monsanto — a billion dollar plus corporation — in court for a $620 bill,” Schmeiser said.
“Eventually they paid, but the money was not the issue. It was a major victory for farmers that said if your fields are contaminated (by an unwanted GM crop), there is a legal avenue … that you can take a corporation to court and win on it.”
After claiming victory in that legal battle, Schmeiser briefly considered continuing his fight by seeking clarification on the extent of a seed company’s financial liabilities in the event that their products — namely a GM canola variety — should show up on a farmer’s land without the farmer’s consent.
For example, the presence of an unwanted GMO plant on a certified organic farm could have unknown financial consequences for the organic farmer and similarly unknown liabilities for the seed company or patent holder, Schmeiser argued.
However, after considering his options, Schmeiser decided to take a different direction, choosing instead to continue his battle against Monsanto and the GM seed industry outside the courts.
“The lawyers asked us, ‘how many more years of your life do you want to spend in court,’ ” said Schmeiser, who claims to have spent thousands of hours between 1999 and 2005 fighting Monsanto.
“It was a full-time job, I basically lived in court, but we were in our 70s at that time and the lawyers recommended that we could do more good by educating people around the world about the effects of GMOs … so that’s what we decided to do.”
Since then, Schmeiser and his wife have travelled to dozens of countries, speaking to universities, the organic food industry, consumer groups and anti-GMO advocacy organizations.
He has appeared at prestigious American universities including Harvard, Berkeley and Cornell and his passport contains visa stamps from dozens of countries where he was invited to speak about his experience with Monsanto.
Speaking engagements over the past few years have taken him to Germany, Great Britain, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Bangladesh, India and various countries in Africa, to name just a few.
To date, he has spoken on every continent other than Antarctica.
And requests continue to flow in.
He was scheduled to speak this year in Moscow, but that trip has been postponed.
Interest in his story has also transcended the agriculture sector and is now generating widespread interest among consumers who are demanding more information about the food they eat and what it contains, he said.
“It’s unbelievable now, the amount of interest around the world,” he said.
“It’s no longer just a farmer issue. It’s a consumer issue.”
At home in Bruno, Schmeiser is no longer growing crops.
His farmland, a total of six quarter sections, is now rented out to another producer whose rotations — like most farmers’ — include genetically modified canola.
“In fact, he is seeding canola on it today,” Schmeiser said.
“And you know what kind of canola it is? It’s some kind of genetically modified variety.”
As for his own perception, Schmeiser concedes that there are farmers who support his position on GMOs and other who view it with skepticism.
“It’s a real mixture,” he said.
“I’ll guarantee you that half will be for it and half will be against it.”