By Charlie Parke
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org
On Sunday, March 3, farmer Percy Schmeiser visited Phoenix to meet with advocates of organic food and small family farms. Percy has become famous for his legal battles with Monsanto over GMO crops and even been the subject of the documentary Percy Schmeiser: David versus Monsanto. Dozens gathered outside of Fair Trade Cafe, across from ASU downtown, to hear the story of how one man could stand up to a huge corporation.
Percy Schmeiser was once the mayor of his hometown of Bruno in Saskatchewan, Canada from 1966 to 1983. He retired to his farm thinking his public life had come to an end. As Monsanto’s GM Canola brand was introduced in the region, Percy discovered Monsanto Canola on his farm. He believes the contamination occurred when a heavy storm blew genetically modified seeds onto his fields. Monsanto sued Farmer Percy under the patent law, as the genetically modified seeds and any by-products were alleged to be Monsanto’s property. Percy and his wife had been active in farming canola on the land for 50 years and were surprised when Monsanto sued to seize the farmland.
Percy fought Monsanto all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a 5 to 4 decision the court ruled that Monsanto could patent a seed but dismissed damage claims by Monsanto asking for money and/or property from farmers who haven’t purchased their seeds. Many consider the decision a great victory for farmers, landowners and those wishing to use natural seeds. Since Monsanto claimed damages from the farm due to Percy’s cultivation of crops that had come from Monsanto seeds, Percy destroyed all his seed and purchased new supplies.
After a few years, Farmer Percy found a new contamination of Monsanto seed on his property. He reported the contamination to Monsanto, but claims Monsanto would only provide for clean-up if he signed waivers giving away his right to further legal actions and free speech about the contamination. Percy, unwilling to sign the waiver, entered into a new legal battle over the responsibility to clean-up the plants. Monsanto was ordered to pay for the clean-up and Percy continues to speak out against Monsanto. “This precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.”
While Farmer Percy has been fairly successful in standing up to Monsanto, most farms have settled out of court. Monsanto has a much larger budget for legal teams and investigators that dwarf most farmers. Monsanto seems to have come into conflict with many farmers, including 5 million Brazilian farmers who are suing Monsanto through a class-action suit. Because Monsanto owns the patent on the seed, it maintains that farmers must purchase new seed each year rather than using seeds saved from the plants themselves. This policy has led to friction with many farmers, along with concerns that Monsanto may be pursuing farmers using covert agents at community meetings and pretending to be surveyors as well as using paid informants. Monsanto maintains that they are legally defending their patent against misuse.
Monsanto is hardly alone in its legal tactics. Microsoft and many others large companies have a similar reputation for aggressive defense. Like many such industry leaders, Monsanto seems to be attempting to dominate the industry, buying up seed companies like Seminis and Emergent. This control over the market led to an anti-trust investigation, again common when large companies become so large as to seemingly pressure small independent businesses out of competition. Some point to a difference between Monsanto and other industry giants as product contamination from seeds that can blow in the wind and replicate and patenting life are unique. The Department of Justice’s investigation of Monsanto includes statements in their anti-trust investigation from many farmers and also 14 attorney generals who noted that the price of seeds was going up rapidly partly due to the fee for patented seeds. “Corn seed in 2009 is reported to be 30% more expensive than it was in 2008, while soybean seed was 25% more expensive in 2009 than in 2008”. In late 2012 the investigation was halted but the Department of Justice stated it would continue to monitor the seed industry.
As well as increased seed costs and legal costs for small farmers, herbicide use has others concerned. Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011. Monsanto creates GMO seeds that are modified to withstand exposure to Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-up herbicide, is widely used on genetically modified plants and seems to be increasing in our bodies, as shown by a German study of human urine. Increasing use of pesticide for Monsanto crops may cause health effects such as pregnancy problems as indicated in another laboratory study.
These concerns have helped put farmers like Percy Schmeiser and their fight with Monsanto onto the world stage. Farmer Percy has been touring the world, bringing together audiences interested in small farms as well as those worried by possible health risks of pesticide use and GMO in human food, to hear firsthand about his experience fighting back. His recent visit to Phoenix is amid increased interest in the effects of GMO food and Monsanto, coming shortly after outspoken GMO critic Jeffrey Smith kicked off a 14 state GMO education tour in Arizona with stops in Phoenix, Sedona and Prescott. A 2012 GMO labeling bill in California brought national attention to questionable health effects of GMO foods and may have spurred a similar GMO labeling bill introduced at the Arizona legislature. While both measures seem to have died, a recent poll indicated over 80% of American’s think GMO foods should be labeled. At the national level a court fight between Monsanto and the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association has added to interest in the battle between farmers like Percy and those companies seeking to patent GMO seeds.