Schmeiser movie could fan anti-GMO feelings

Farmer worries film will make consumers’ anti-GMO fears worse, but professor thinks 20-year-old case is old news

Farmers probably have more choices for canola seed today than there are frozen pizza options at the grocery store.

In spite of that reality, Clinton Monchuk still hears the same comment from urbanites.

“I had a tour on my farm earlier this fall (and) a lot of consumers don’t understand that I have choices of different seeds to use. I don’t have to use Monsanto’s,” said Monchuk, executive director of Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan, which has the mandate of connecting the public to food and farming.

“I can use a variety of different companies. They don’t know that. They think I’m forced to grow these seeds. I said that’s not true. I have a variety of a different canola seeds that I can grow.”

Such misinformation could be part of the legacy of Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Bruno, Sask., who was embroiled in a highly publicized lawsuit with Monsanto in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Monsanto sued Schmeiser for violating its patent on Roundup Ready canola, claiming that he seeded RR canola and used the company’s technology without paying a fee to the company.

Schmeiser maintained that the Roundup Ready seed blew onto his fields and he was innocent, but the courts disagreed. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the judges sided with Monsanto:

“(Schmeiser) did not at all explain why he sprayed Roundup to isolate the Roundup Ready plants he found on his land; why he then harvested the plants and segregated the seeds, saved them and kept them for seed; why he next planted them; and why through this husbandry, he ended up with 1,030 acres of Roundup Ready canola,” they ruled.

“On the facts found by the trial judge, Mr. Schmeiser was not an innocent bystander; rather, he actively cultivated Roundup Ready canola.”

Schmeiser’s legendary battle with Monsanto is now being made into a Hollywood movie, with Christopher Walken playing the lead role of Schmeiser. Part of the movie was shot in Winnipeg in September.

The movie could revitalize the narrative that multi-national corporations force farmers to use genetically modified seeds and invigorate activists who oppose agricultural biotechnology.

“We definitely have to look at this as another situation that’s going to place a lot of the companies that we work with and a lot of the technologies that we use in a negative light,” said Monchuk, who farms near Lanigan, Sask.

Stuart Smyth, a University of Saskatchewan assistant professor in agricultural and resource economics, is more skeptical. He doesn’t believe the Schmeiser movie will influence the general public.

“I think it would be a mistake to take it lightly … (but) by the time this movie rolls out, in a couple of years, it will be two years past the point that Monsanto ceased to exist,” he said, noting Bayer has acquired Monsanto.

“I really have much doubt that this is going to resonate with anyone outside the radical environmental community.”

In the early 2000s, when the Schmeiser trial was in the news, the media coverage did influence the public’s perception of GM crops and biotechnology, Smyth added.

However, the Supreme Court ruled against Schmeiser 14 years ago, which is ancient history for today’s young people.

“Two weeks ago (in class) we were talking about intellectual property and I said, ‘how many of you have heard of Percy Schmeiser?’ ” Smyth said.

“In a class of 60 students not one had heard of him, and 85 percent of my class is farm kids. So if he doesn’t resonate with the farm kids, he sure isn’t going to resonate with anybody in the urban environment.”

Monsanto takes a similar view: the Schmeiser story is old news.

This summer Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan told the CBC that the company carried on and succeeded following the trial.

“Overall our business continued to thrive, continued to grow, we continued to bring new technology to market, and we continue to have a very strong business today…. This definitely was an iconic case, but we’ve moved on.”

The Schmeiser movie, tentatively called Percy, just began shooting. It also stars Christina Ricci, who plays an anti-GMO activist.

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