Media superstar makes headlines over seed

BRUNO, Sask. – The small town of Bruno is an unlikely place to see a parade of international journalists.

And the defunct, ramshackle gas station called Schmeiser’s Garage is an unlikely place to find an international media celebrity, ready for his next encounter with fame.

But that’s where you’ll find Percy Schmeiser, a man whose story has attracted reporters from four continents and many nations.

“The whole thing has just caught on fire now,” said Schmeiser, the farmer fighting a Monsanto lawsuit that claims he grew patented seed without a licence.

“This (story) means many different things for many different people.”

Schmeiser’s case has become a cause celebre around the world with opponents of genetically modified

organisms.

An internet search of his name can bring up hundreds of mentions of his case.

His story has appeared in dozens of foreign publications, from France’s Le Monde to Great Britain’s The Guardian and Financial Times to newspapers in Brazil and Thailand.

Half a dozen British television film crews have visited his farm. He recently hosted an Italian photographer and expects a Japanese documentary film crew soon.

So far he’s had less interest from Canadian media, but he’s hopeful that will change once his court date with Monsanto draws close.

Schmeiser is amazed by the international media response to his story, even though his case first became widely known after he consciously sought local media attention in November 1998.

Monsanto, the maker of Roundup and the owner of the patent rights to Roundup Ready canola seed, had recently launched a lawsuit against him.

The company claimed he grew its patented seed without permission and without signing a contract.. The company said it had obtained samples of his crop, which revealed that Schmeiser’s canola had been grown from Monsanto’s patented seed.

Schmeiser called a press conference and denied the charge, claiming that if Monsanto’s patented genes were in his crop, which was planted on four adjoining quarter sections of land, it was the result of seed blowing off the tops of other farmers’ trucks and cross-pollination from the wind and bees.

Spread like wildfire

After his story was reported in Saskatchewan farm newspapers it was picked up by the Washington Post, and then spread through the world media.

In many ways, Schmeiser is a reporter’s dream. He is likeable, friendly, intelligent and lucid. He seems sincere, humble, folksy Ð a real salt-of-the-earth Saskatchewan farmer.

His years as mayor of Bruno, Liberal member of the legislature and chair of farm machinery dealership associations have made him a convincing advocate for himself.

He’s willing to spend hours explaining his side of the lawsuits Ð he has launched his own against Monsanto for allegedly polluting his canola with GM pollen Ð and will gladly pose for photos.

Many media reports describe this case as a David versus Goliath battle, and he’s the perfect subject for it.

So long as he’s telling the truth.

Schmeiser insists he is being truthful. Both Monsanto’s claims about Schmeiser in its suit against him, and Schmeiser’s claims against Monsanto in his suit against it, have yet to be tested in court and are now just unproven accusations.

If Monsanto is correct, it’s a relatively simple story: farmer obtains brown-bagged seed and gets caught.

If Schmeiser is correct, it’s a complex story with vast implications: biotechnology runs amok, polluting farmers’ fields, enslaving producers to corporate seed masters and threatening to pollute the world’s biodiversity.

Schmeiser said most reporters, especially European reporters, find the second scenario more compelling.

“A lot of them are very concerned about property rights, about the power multinationals have over individual farmers,” said Schmeiser, who has boxes full of newspapers that refer to his case.

“A lot of these press people say to me, ‘if Monsanto can do this to you – contaminate and pollute your land – then farmers might as well quit farming.’ “

Little fame

When this case started in late 1998, Schmeiser was not well known outside his area and hardly at all outside of Saskatchewan. He seemed a small farmer beset with a large problem.

At the time Monsanto seemed a global colossus, a giant astride the world of biotechnology. Its GM crops were rapidly taking over large swaths of North American fields and it was swallowing seed companies and expanding at a fast rate.

Now Schmeiser, though still facing a daunting pair of lawsuits with a multinational, has literally become a hero to many.

One internet web page, called the Social Activist’s Site for World Peace, proclaims Schmeiser as “our hero, our man of the hour who dares challenge the likes of one of the world’s largest chemical perpetrators.”

Monsanto, after years of expansion and optimism, was recently forced into a merger. Its agricultural wing, threatened by the backlash against GMOs, had dragged the company’s value to a critically low level.

Some suggest Monsanto may even ditch its name in an attempt to leave behind a bad reputation.

No one knows who will be left standing when the Schmeiser-Monsanto fight is over, but Schmeiser is fighting to win.

Though fame has brought him adulation from opponents of GMOs and brought him into contact with many farmers who are also worried about the implications of biotech crops, he says it has come at a cost.

“I find it very stressful,” said Schmeiser, who is 69.

“I’d rather be fishing.”

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