Genetic giant swats seed-saving farmer

Percy Schmeiser’s long legal battle has reached an end. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, in a tight 5-4 decision, that the farmer was guilty of violating the agri-business giant Monsanto’s patent on a gene for resistance to glyphosate – in ‘Roundup’, a broad-spectrum herbicide.

The Court determined that patent rights on a gene extend to the living organism in which it is found. Consequently, saving and planting seed containing a patented gene without authorization from the patent holder is illegal.

Canadian farmers have a long and strong tradition of seed saving, especially in the western prairies where Schmeiser farms. Canola (oilseed rape), the crop he grew, is itself a product of farmer seed saving, farmer selection and publicly funded research. It’s an example of what plant breeding can accomplish without patents.

It is also an example of why co-existence between genetically modified (GM) and non-GM crops is impossible. Today, all the canola acreage in western Canada is contaminated with Monsanto’s patented ‘Roundup-Ready’ gene.

None of this mattered to the majority of the judges. Their decision focused on a narrow interpretation of case law, treating plants like any other manufactured good – even though they repeatedly pointed out the special nature of biological ‘inventions’. They reasoned that the owner of a patented gene should have monopoly rights over any living organism containing that gene, no matter how it got there and even if, as the majority of judges confirmed, the plants themselves are not patentable. It didn’t matter that Schmeiser never deliberately planted Monsanto seeds in his fields. He committed a crime merely by growing plants containing Monsanto’s gene. With this Supreme Court decision not only are farmers being told they have to suffer the economic, ecological and social effects of GM contamination – but they will be held in violation of someone’s property rights as well. This may mean that more farmers will try to escape the threat of legal action by buying Monsanto’s seeds and signing a technology use agreement. Otherwise, like soybean farmers in Brazil, they could find Monsanto at the grain elevator, waiting to test their harvest for the presence of patented genes and charge them royalties when the genes are detected. The Supreme Court decision could, however, also trigger a major backlash. The true face of the ‘gene revolution’ and of the control handed to transnational corporations through patents on life has been laid bare.

Percy Schmeiser says: ‘Monsanto will face huge liability issues down the road. The Court determined that they have ownership of the plant and that I infringed this by having it in my field. With ownership comes responsibility and I assume more lawsuits will be filed against them for the contamination of farmers’ fields.’

The struggle now leaves the court and goes firmly into the political arena.


New Internationalist issue 371 magazine cover This article is from the September 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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