Contract terms pit farmers against Monsanto

A small-town Saskatchewan farmer is in the spotlight for a suit launched against him by a transnational chemical company.

“I don’t have my head in the sand. I know who I’m up against and they have unlimited amounts of money to fight this case and they can drag it out and try to break me,” said Percy Schmeiser, who farms in the Bruno, Sask. area.

“It’s scary. It’s really scary. I’ve been in business all my life and been able to take a lot of stress. But this is major.”

Monsanto is suing Schmeiser for allegedly planting Roundup Ready canola in 1997 without a mandatory contract called a technology-use agreement. The company says it received a tip that Schmeiser illegally bought the seed from local growers to plant a crop that year and then kept some of the seed for the 1998 crop year.

Inspectors took samples from Schmeiser’s field to verify the information and found Roundup Ready canola. Monsanto filed a statement of claim against Schm-eiser last August.

The farmer denies buying or growing the seed and thinks Roundup Ready canola pollen drifted into his field by the wind or off trucks carrying the grain to the local elevator.

“I never had anything to do with Monsanto,” said Schmeiser, who expects his next court appearance will be later this year when a judge will begin to assess the evidence.

His statement of defence argues he didn’t deliberately plant any Roundup Ready canola and questions the validity of Monsanto’s patent for the technology. As well, it accuses Monsanto of spreading herbicide-resistant plants.

Schmeiser, 68, said other farmers are supporting him in his struggle: “Basically people are saying I’ve been a lightning rod to really come forward and not be scared or bullied by Monsanto.”

Last month Swiss and German national radio reporters came out to interview him about his situation, he added.

Jean Christie, director of international liaisons for the Rural Advancement Foundation International, said the case is gaining plenty of publicity.

“I think Monsanto is a target for public scrutiny and I think they’re going to come under some more before it’s over. So far they’ve been fighting and losing a public relations battle,” said Christie, whose organization frequently questions Monsanto operations.

Aaron Mitchell, biotechnology manager for Monsanto, said none of the cases it’s pursuing against farmers show evidence that pollen flow caused Roundup Ready canola to surface in fields not under contract.

In 1998, Monsanto inspectors found 16 prairie producers its says grew Roundup Ready canola illegally. Mitchell said the company has settled eight of the violations. Some farmers worked their crops down while others paid a cash settlement for the violations. The Schmeiser case is the only one that’s gone through the court process of discovery.

Most farmers who buy the seed comply with the technology-use agreement that doesn’t allow them to keep the crop for reseeding, said Mitchell. Problems are largely avoided because anyone who wants to purchase it has to attend a meeting, which outlines the conditions of the contract.

“We’d sooner have you disagree with our approach here and now, as opposed to wanting to in effect steal it from us. Just be very clear, Mr. Grower, that we take this pretty seriously,” said Mitchell, adding up to $25,000 has been paid to the company for a violation.

In the Schmeiser case Monsanto wants any Roundup Ready canola Schmeiser has and asks for unspecified punitive and exemplary damages, as well as legal costs.

Monsanto has to enforce the rules to create a level playing field for all farmers buying the technology, said Mitchell.

Christie and Schmeiser dislike the way Monsanto uses tips from other farmers to nab supposed violators.

“I feel that a company as large as Monsanto could have surely came out with a policy that doesn’t pit one farmer against another, to make one farmer squeal or rattle on the next farmer,” said Schmeiser. “I think it’s a terrible policy and it’s really growing a distrust and hatred against farmers.”

But Mitchell said the company’s intent isn’t to pit one farmer against another. Monsanto often gets multiple tips before acting on them, he said.

“I suspect if farmers aren’t getting along this could be a further grievance to the whole thing but I don’t see this as changing much between neighbors.”

Schmeiser, who has already spent thousands in legal costs, said he wants to retire from farming. So far Monsanto hasn’t asked for an out-of-court settlement and he doesn’t know whether he’d go that route.

“This ultimately won’t affect me and my farming rights. On the other hand I feel a God-given right is being taken away from farmers. All over the world farmers should have the right to grow crops from the seed they produce. That should never be taken away.”

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