Opponents of genetically modified organisms have high hopes for the Percy Schmeiser canola trial, which began this week in Saskatoon.
They hope Schmeiser will be found not responsible for the Monsanto genes that appeared in his crops in 1997 and 1998. The activists also want Monsanto brought to task for what they see as a radically dangerous attack on food purity.
“Somewhere, someone has to be accountable for the genetic corruption of our crops, weeds, honey and bee microorganisms,” said Suzie Lees, of GE Free New Zealand, in an interview.
Anti-GM activists think companies shouldn’t have the right to own parts of living organisms.
“Many organizations like ourselves do not believe that life forms, particularly food crops, should be patented in the first place,” said Lees.
Schmeiser, a Bruno, Sask., farmer, is accused by Monsanto of knowingly obtaining and planting a crop of canola that was genetically modified to resist the Roundup herbicide. The company argues he breached the patent by growing the crop.
Schmeiser said he only planted conventional canola, and any of Monsanto’s patented gene discovered in his crop got there through cross pollination.
Case in point
Doug McKay, a member of the Manitoba Eco Network, said he sees Schmeiser’s situation as proof of the danger of GM crops.
“It does speak to a number of the basic issues involving the technology,” said McKay.
“It’s not just the health issues, but the ability of farmers to be able to farm the way they want to farm.”
Opponents of GMOs have been critical of the prosecution of farmers in the United States and Canada by chemical companies for allegedly growing crops without a licence.
To McKay and Lees, the Schmeiser case shows how vulnerable farmers are to the power of companies like Monsanto.
“I don’t know how they can take someone like Mr. Schmeiser to court and make him go through the time and expense to prove his innocence when in fact … it was drift,” said McKay.
Said Lees: “Monsanto have appeared very heavy-handed in their approach to their protection of patented seed and as a result we are extremely pleased to see someone take them on.”
If Monsanto does not win this case, biotechnology companies may be forced to back away from an aggressive approach to farmers and from putting more GMOs into the market, McKay said.
“Hopefully it will turn the tide somewhat. It will put the onus back on these companies that want to produce and market these products, that they take responsibility for what they do in the environment.”
The recent discovery of GM-tainted conventional canola from Canada growing in Europe has bolstered Schmeiser’s credibility among his supporters.
“We have no reason to doubt his word,” said Lees.
McKay said he doesn’t know the specifics of the claims against Schmeiser or know him personally. It would be “unfortunate” if Schmeiser’s story of cross pollination turned out not to be true.
“There is that possibility that maybe he is taking advantage of the debate going on now, trying to avoid some contractual obligations that he would have incurred if he had actually paid for the seed,” said McKay.
“I’m hoping that’s not the case. I’m trusting he is putting forward the truth when taking this up.”