IN the Greek Mediterranean many years ago, there was a king named Pyrrhus. His armies won a battle but the casualties were so high that his army was almost eliminated. His victory cry has survived for thousands of years: “One more such victory and we are lost!”
Since then, a victory gained at too great a cost has been known as a pyrrhic victory. Has Monsanto won such a victory?
In the battle between the biotech giant Monsanto and Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, the Supreme Court of Canada declared Monsanto the victor.
By a 5-4 margin, the court found that Monsanto had a valid patent on the genetically modified genes contained in Roundup Ready canola.
It also found a patent had been infringed when Schmeiser saved seeds from plants that survived the spraying of Roundup, replanted them, harvested them and sold the seed, all without signing a Technology Use Agreement with Monsanto or paying it $15 per acre as required.
While the court found that Schmeiser used the GM seed, it also found he did not profit from this use so it reversed a lower court ruling awarding Monsanto damages and declined to award Monsanto court costs for the case. So, Monsanto won no money from the case, spent close to $1 million prosecuting it and received negative publicity for more than five years for pursuing it.
It has declined to proceed with the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat though it carefully refuses to say that will never happen. How much has this cost it? According to court documents, up to five million acres in Canada were planted to Roundup Ready canola in 2000, 40 percent of Canada’s canola crop that year. At $15 per seeded acre, Monsanto earned $75 million in licensing fees, not including revenue from selling seed or herbicide. It could conceivably have earned much more from wheat.
The Schmeiser case may boomerang on Monsanto as organic farmers in Saskatchewan proceed with a class action lawsuit alleging that Monsanto and Aventis have contaminated the fields of organic canola growers with GM strains on which these companies hold the patents. If patent holders have the legally enforceable right of monopoly over their creations, are they also liable for the damage these new genes do?
When I was about eight years old, my mother parked her station wagon under a shady tree on a downhill slope while she played tennis nearby. My younger brother and I were left in the car to play. You can imagine what happened. Without turning on the engine, I managed to shift the car into neutral. The car and cargo silently accelerated into the nearest lamppost.
My mother owned the car. Even though she wasn’t driving it, she was liable for damages resulting from its use. I no longer recall whether my mother won her tennis match, but if she had, it too would have been a pyrrhic victory.
Christopher Lind writes frequently in the area of ethics and economics. He is director of the Toronto School of Theology. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Western Producer.