Monsanto, Schmeiser in gene battle

The high-profile and scientifically detailed trial of Bruno, Sask., farmer Percy Schmeiser has begun.

Over an expected three weeks, lawyers for Schmeiser and Monsanto plan to introduce a long string of witnesses who will support two radically opposed theories about what went on in Schmeiser’s canola fields in 1997 and 1998.

Monsanto’s lawyers have begun marching out the evidence they believe will prove that Schmeiser knowingly grew a crop of Roundup Ready canola without a licence.

The company says it can prove that the Monsanto gene found in Schmeiser’s crop could not have gotten there by cross pollination.

“It’s just too much – far too much – to have happened by anything other than deliberate planting,” Monsanto lead lawyer Roger Hughes said in his opening statement.

“Cross pollination could not have caused this to have happened … We just don’t accept that story.”

He showed evidence in court, which he said shows Schmeiser’s crop was well over 90 percent Roundup Ready.

But Saskatoon lawyer Terry Zakreski said Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola is a threat to the environment and that Schmeiser is the one who has been injured.

“He is the victim of this gene, not the infringer.”

Zakreski will get a chance to lay out Schmeiser’s defence once Monsanto has entered its evidence.

The trial, which got under way in federal court in Saskatoon June 5, is the world’s most visible case of a farmer charged with breaking Monsanto’s patent. It is also the most visible case of a farmer claiming his non-GM crop has been contaminated by GM pollen.

Hughes, a Toronto lawyer, said Monsanto intends to introduce a string of witnesses that will reveal everything from how Roundup Ready canola was created to how Schmeiser’s crop was found to contain it to whether his claims of cross pollination are possible.

Hughes said three types of tests were conducted on Schmeiser’s 1997 and 1998 crops. All three showed that Schmeiser’s crop contained Monsanto’s gene.

Hughes attacked Schmeiser’s claim that wind and bees could have spread pollen from Roundup Ready canola into his crop, or that canola seed blowing off passing trucks could have transformed his conventional canola into GM canola “by a lengthy series of coincidences.”

Company demands

Hughes said Monsanto wants Schmeiser to pay Monsanto three types of damages: it wants the $15 per acre fee growers of Roundup Ready canola have to pay the company; it wants the profit Schmeiser made on the crop, which it estimates at $34,000; and it wants a fine.

It also wants an injunction against Schmeiser so he can’t grow another crop of Roundup Ready canola until after Monsanto’s patent protection ends in 2010.

The trial’s first witness was one of the four men who invented Roundup Ready canola. Robert Horsch, who works for Monsanto in Wisconsin, explained the basics of genetic engineering and how he and his team managed to take a substance out of petunia plants, combine it with a substance out of cauliflower mosaic virus and introduce it into canola plants to make them immune to glyphosate.

Though he attempted to explain the science of biotechnology in simple terms, at times the complexity of the matter seemed to sail above the heads of most in the courtroom.

After one explanation justice Andrew McKay wryly remarked, “How did that sit with you, Mr. Hughes?”

Hughes said, with a touch of irony, that he felt Horsch had explained the matter simply enough.

Monsanto has a number of officials present. Craig Evans, the company’s manager of biotechnology in Canada, wore a shirt emblazoned with the Roundup Ready logo.

Schmeiser sat quietly in the courtroom.

After the first morning, both he and Zakreski refused to discuss their defence with the crowd of reporters.

But Schmeiser said build-up to the case has taken a toll.

“It’s been very stressful to my wife and myself.”

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