The Supreme Court of Canada says Parliament has unfinished business related to the Percy Schmeiser appeal.
In its decision handed down on May 21, the highest court in the land said Canada’s Patent Act is unclear when it comes to moral concerns surrounding the right to manipulate genes to obtain better weed control or higher yields in plants.
“It is open to Parliament to consider these concerns and amend the Patent Act should it find them persuasive.”
Later in the decision the judges said Parliament has not seen fit to distinguish between inventions concerning plants and other inventions, or to determine whether there are any dangers related to biotechnology.
“Again, if Parliament wishes to respond legislatively to biotechnology inventions concerning plants it is free to do so. Thus far it has not chosen to do so,” wrote chief justice Beverley McLachlin.
Whether or not the act will be revamped depends on which political party forms the next federal government.
In the midst of an election campaign, the three major political parties in Western Canada are split on the issue. One wants to revamp the Patent Act, one wants it to remain untouched and one is noncommittal.
New Democratic Party agriculture critic Dick Proctor would welcome a parliamentary debate on the issue.
“I think that’s a very good idea, to refer it to the House of Commons and let it be decided there.”
If re-elected he will bring the issue forward himself. Proctor said the NDP does not want multinational companies like Monsanto to have the right to patent plants or their genes.
Conservative agriculture critic Gerry Ritz said the issue of who owns genetically modified crops does not need to be resolved by Parliament.
“I think the decision of the Supreme Court was the right one,” he said. “I don’t see anyone in Parliament picking this up because of the vast majority of support (for GM crops) from farmers across this country.”
Daphne Guerrero, spokesperson for Liberal MP and industry minister Lucienne Robillard, said the departments of industry and agriculture are examining the decision to determine if the Patent Act needs changes.
“It’s something we’re certainly looking at, but no decision has been made yet.”
She said the minister has no stand on whether plants should be patentable.
Schmeiser and his supporters, including the Council of Canadians, the National Farmers Union and the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, are calling on MPs to reopen the Patent Act and clarify whether plants are patentable.
National Farmers Union vice-president Terry Boehm said there are ethical issues at stake that legislation fails to address.
“I think it’s important that Parliament does look at the Patent Act because it wasn’t constructed to deal with biological processes and patents on genes and cells,” he said.
He wants government to ban the patenting of plants and their genes.
Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan said the act is “pretty darn clear” and shouldn’t be disturbed. But if it was changed, it should recognize that plants are patentable because, unlike animals, they are not a higher form of life.