Percy Schmeiser is a Canadian farmer from small town Saskatchewan. He has been farming for more than 50 years, saving his own seed, developing some of his own, minding his own business. His wife Louise is a full partner in the farm operation and managed most of the seed saving and breeding. Then one day, Monsanto, a multi-national seed and chemical company called up to say they were suing him. Monsanto’s “private investigators” had found their patented Round Up Ready Canola in his field. Schmeiser had never talked to Monsanto, never gone to any of their meetings, never wanted their seed. He figures they got a tip on one of their “snitch lines”. Clearly this former town reeve, municipal councillor and Provincial Liberal MLA (in the late 1960’s) was a lowlife who had stolen their property.
“You might as well sue the birds and the bees and the wind then,” said Schmeiser.
He claims the seed drifted onto his field. Monsanto said he had to pay their technology fee whether he knew their canola was there or not. Some believe Monsanto is purposely seeding the fields, a plot by the chemical cartel to contaminate the fields and then extort money from farmers for patent infringement. But could they be this sinister?
When farmers enter into the contract with Monsanto they agree to buy their seed along with their fertilizers and pesticides that they also produce and pay a royalty on top. They must allow Monsanto’s “cops” to inspect their fields. The company calls them “audits”.
Monsanto’s investigators, former RCMP officers, regularly patrol rural roads and take crop samples from non-customers. This is trespassing according to Schmeiser.
“What would happen if I went onto their fields and took some of their seed?” he asks. Other Saskatchewan farmers report planes and copters buzzing their fields.
Schmeiser launched a 10 million dollar countersuit and garnered world-wide support for his action. It took two years to go to court. The battle went all the way to the Supreme Court. Schmeiser ultimately lost the case and appeals. The judges ruled that it doesn’t matter how a farm is contaminated, if the patented seed is found in the field, the farmer no longer owns it. So all 50 years of the research he and Louise had done on their own seeds was now owned by Monsanto.
The up side is that Schmeiser did not have to pay them a cent because, the court ruled, he hadn’t profited from the technology. Not only had he not profited, but he’d used up all his savings. He had to pay all his own legal bills – “ about half a million for his one lawyer. Monsanto had to pay their own too: two million for their 15 lawyers. Schmeisers’ fields were also contaminated, needed massive clean-up and may never be restored to non-GMO (genetically modified organism) status .
Monsanto may have won but they lost the public relations battle. Schmeiser now speaks all over the world and is a hero for farmers fighting to retain ownership of their seeds.
I heard Schmeiser speak recently in Vancouver and learned more details about the five years he was engaged in the lawsuits. Monsanto sued him and his wife personally, calling them stubborn and arrogant. They put a lien against their home, farm and equipment. Monsanto representatives would sit in their driveway and watch them. They’d make menacing phone calls. Schmeiser wanted to quit many times, but Louise wouldn’t let him. He says he couldn’t have carried on without her support. He never left his wife home alone during that time. They both feared for their lives.
But it was the fear Monsanto stirred up among their neighbours that caused the most damage. He spoke of the “extortion” letters sent to friends. He read aloud from one of them, “We have reason to believe you might be growing our crop and it is not licensed. To avoid going to court, please send us $50,000 [sometimes more] within two weeks.” The company created a culture of fear: neighbours snitching on neighbours, afraid to talk to each other, afraid of losing their farms.
“It was the break down of the social fabric,” said Schmeiser.
Monsanto is not just guilty of bullying farmers with dictator-like flourish, they have been convicted of landfilling some of their monstrous inventions: canola with a rogue gene, other grains gone awry with toxic pesticides built right in. And yet, this ordinary farmer who was just going along minding his own business, trying to make a living, is the one who is called criminal.
I am reminded of the 20 premises at the beginning of Derrick Jensen’s book Endgame (Seven Stories Press, 2006); the deeply embedded beliefs we buy into to make industrial civilization work. These beliefs are often not conscious, at least not by the masses. Premise number five pretty well sums up how the persecutors justify the persecution of the small:
The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control – “ in everyday language, to make money – “ by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.
Percy’s problems with Monsanto did not end with the final appeal. Some volunteer GM canola plants popped up in a field that had lain fallow for eight years. They called Monsanto to let them know and asked them to remove their plants. Monsanto agreed to remove the plants by hand as the Schmeisers requested. But for a price. The Schmeisers would have to agree to never take them to court no matter how much contamination might occur in the future. And they were never to speak of it to anyone.
Schmeiser refused to give up his freedom of speech. Instead they had their neighbours help them remove the plants. And they took Monsanto to small claims court to recoup the $640 it cost them to do the clean up. The multibillion dollar corporation arrived in court with a $640 cheque in hand and settled. A precedent has been set. Schmeiser believes this will help farmers in the future to get reimbursed when their fields become contaminated.
Let us all savour this moment of victory by the small.