Percy Schmeiser: unlikely hero
By Eva Lyman

Long-time Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser spoke recently at the Vancouver Public Library about how his life changed when his path crossed with the giant chemical corporation Monsanto.

For 50 years, Schmeiser had farmed peacefully in Saskatchewan on the farm his grandparents had homesteaded in the 1890s. He grew various crops, canola among them. Not only did he save his seeds, but over the years he developed improved varieties to suit his particular region east of Saskatoon. In addition to farming, he was active in his community, serving in many ways, including as MLA.

Then in 1996 everything changed. That was the year Canada gave approval to Monsanto to introduce its Roundup Ready canola.

This new, genetically modified crop, which had in its natural form been worth millions to Canadian farmers, could now be sold as a Monsanto patent, because it had been genetically altered to resist applications of the popular glyphosphate herbicide known as Roundup. What "Roundup Ready" means is that farmers growing the gene-altered canola could now spray the whole field, including the canola crop, and only the weeds would die.

At least that was the theory. As so often happens, the theory did not quite pan out in reality.

What farmers found, according to Schmeiser, is that within two or three years, weeds adapted and became resistant to normal applications of Roundup. This happened with several other herbicides as well.

As a result, farmers now have to contend with hardy super weeds that are resistant to most of the known herbicides. It means that farmers have to apply much more of the chemicals to get rid of the weeds than they used to.

The second thing that happened was that the pollen from Monsanto's new, genetically modified, Roundup-resistant canola drifted into fields of pure canola and, through cross-pollination, contaminated the traditional crops, even in fields miles away. This is what happened to Schmeiser's canola.

In 1998, the Schmeisers were notified by the corporation that they were growing Monsanto's patented GM canola illegally, without paying any royalties. This was news to the Schmeisers -- shocking news at that. He immediately realized that Monsanto's technology was threatening his specialized, pure seeds, developed over 50 years of farming to specifically suit local conditions.

Since Schmeiser had no intention of growing Roundup Ready canola, and realizing its random drifting onto his fields was destroying what he'd worked 50 years to achieve, he decided to fight back. He knew that if he caved in, Monsanto would confiscate his crops as a penalty, and he would lose 50 years of his research on superior canola seeds.

Schmeiser also worried that Canada's Prairie farmers would lose the seeds he had developed for their local conditions, and perhaps Monsanto could patent them in some way in the future.

Shaking Monsanto's letter in his fist, Schmeiser's voice shook with indignation as he wondered by what right Monsanto could be gaining, free, his 50 years of research into canola seeds, while at the same time threatening him into keeping their assault on his livelihood quiet.

To top off the Corporation's extraordinary claims, he discovered that the Roundup Ready (RR) canola that was the basis of the original legal action had not even been found in Schmeiser's fields, but in a ditch adjacent to his property. Later, Monsanto's investigators found 1 per cent of their Genetically Modified (GM) canola in only two of Schmeiser's eight canola fields.

There are three main issues connected with GM crops, Schmeiser noted. First, there are various potential health hazards and environmental dangers. (Read Seeds of Deception by J. Smith for more on these issues, he suggests.) These, however, are not Schmeiser's primary concerns at this time. His main worry is over the rights of farmers to grow and save their own seeds, as farmers round the world have done since the birth of agriculture thousands of years ago. By saving their best seeds, farmers everywhere were able to improve the crop's quality over time. In the poorer regions of the world, the right and ability of farmers to save seeds for next year's planting makes the difference between food security and starvation to this day.

Patented seeds, on the other hand, have to be purchased from the manufacturer, or patentor, every year. Many of the new seeds become sterile after one growing season, and cannot be collected and saved for next year's planting. This represents a huge increase in cost to the farmer -- a cost increase most Third World farmers cannot afford.

It took two years for Schmeiser's case to come to trial in Federal Court. The trial, held before one judge in June 2000, lasted for two and a half weeks. Incredibly, this one judge ruled that it doesn't matter how the Monsanto seeds got in Schmeiser's fields -- whether it was unintentional, through random cross-pollination by wind or bees -- the entire crop becomes Monsanto's property. Schmeiser must lose his crops, and pay a hefty fine. If he destroys his seeds, he has to pay more. Even his own specialty seeds, the judge ruled, must go to Monsanto.

In other words, Schmeiser has no redress against Monsanto contaminating his specialty seeds, but Monsanto can gain 50 years of this farmer's research into seeds -- free!

By this time, the case was beginning to resonate around the world with farmers' groups, health advocates, and environmental NGOs. International groups from Africa to India to the Americas were beginning to take notice.

Apart from health and environmental concerns, their common concern was how much control over the freedom of citizens was going to private corporations in a supposedly free society.

Schmeiser took to the road, addressing citizens' groups in many countries.

With the help of one NGO who took up his cause, the Council of Canadians (see www.canadians.org for details of one case), Schmeiser appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Appeals. This level of court, however, makes no comment on content, and only decides cases on the basis of the soundness of law. In other words, was there any technical error in the way the law was applied in this case? So these three judges did not argue with the first judge, but upheld the decision as technically correct.

With the backing of the Council of Canadians and other NGOs, Schmeiser appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000. Finally last year, he learned that the Supreme Court would hear his case in January 2004.

In his case before the Supreme Court of Canada there were two prominent international interveners, Dr. Vandanna Shiva's "The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology," and "The International Center for Technology Assessment/Center for Food Safety" from the U.S., as well as several prominent Canadian groups, notable among them being the Government of the Province of Ontario, concerned about the health implications of the GMO technology. The Sierra Club of Canada, The National Farmers' Union, and the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration were interveners taking Schmeiser's side. There were several interveners siding with Monsanto (see www.canadians.org).

Seeing his stubborn resistance and that he was going public with his case, Monsanto launched a second legal action against Schmeiser, this time for one million dollars, for his "arrogance, and insubordination". Incredibly, in response to Monsanto's second action, the courts have put a lien on the Schmeiser farm.

The main questions the Supreme Court were asked to address in January were as follows:

  • Can any living organisms be owned and protected by patents?
  • Can farmers' property rights be protected against excess corporate powers (for example, to be free from crop contamination, and harassment)?
  • Can farmers keep seeds for next year's planting?
  • Who owns life?

There is a degree of optimism among Schmeiser's backers and allies, as the Supreme Court ruled recently that the "Harvard Mouse", a type of experimental mouse patented in the USA, could not be patented in Canada as it is a higher life form.

In the intervening years, Schmeiser claims he has spoken to many American and Canadian farmers in the prairie/plains region, who have been harassed by powerful chemical corporations, most often by Monsanto. This trend is adding to the growing concern over the powers of private corporations over the welfare of citizens.

Here are some of the Monsanto tactics that Schmeiser revealed.

On the U.S. side, Monsanto hires Pinkerton's, the private detective agency, to spy on farmers' fields. In Canada they hire retired RCMP officers. These men then go to a farmer's home and say there have been reports that he is growing Roundup Ready canola without authorization and they want to go into his field and check. Schmeiser showed a picture of a farmer's field that he said had been sprayed from the air with Roundup (while the family was out) to see if any canola plants would survive -- because permission to investigate the fields was not given. No one compensated the farmer for the loss of crops. These gangster tactics intimidate many farmers.

Schmeiser says the social structure of the communities is being damaged, as neighbours don't even trust neighbours any more. Furthermore, farmers are under orders from Monsanto not to reveal their tactics to anyone on penalty of huge fines. He read from just such a letter he said he had received from Monsanto himself.

Monsanto has claimed that whatever monies they collect in penalties from farmers are given to charities. They have not, however, been able or willing to name any recipients when this information was requested.

Besides the stick approach, Monsanto also uses enticements. Farmers are given rewards for using GM seeds, and for informing on their neighbours. These incentives may include "consulting" fees, holiday trips, and such items as expensive leather jackets. Schmeiser noted with a wry smile that he has not seen any farmers in his area wearing Monsanto leather jackets.

Some farm leaders, however, appear to be on Monsanto's payroll. According to an article in the Winnipeg Free Press ("What Happens when Farm Leaders meet Agribusiness" by A. Shafer, 8 Dec 02), some farm leaders are getting substantial per diem consulting fees for helping Monsanto convince farmers of the benefits of growing genetically modified crops.

Given the mounting opposition, and problems with GM crops, one might ask why farmers decided to use the GM seeds in the first place? Schmeiser explains that Monsanto made promises, which regrettably have not panned out. These included the following:

  1. Farmers will get bigger yields.
  2. The produce will be more nutritious.
  3. Less chemicals will be required.
  4. They will be able to feed the hungry world.

To many farmers, the need for fewer chemicals was the most appealing prospect, as most farmers wanted to reduce their use, both for cost and for the health of the soil.

None of these claims seem to have materialized, however. In a frightful display of the survival of the fittest, both weeds and non-genetically modified canola crops became adapted to the glyphosphate and other herbicides after a couple of years; and more, not fewer, chemical applications are now needed. According to Schmeiser, some crops and weeds, like the "super weed canola", are now
resistant to three or four herbicides at once, including the organocarbon 2-4D -- a relative of the long banned DDT.

In order to kill the super-weeds, new chemicals with more toxic properties are being developed, Schmeiser said. Furthermore, farmers are finding that they have to triple the applications of current herbicides to kill the weeds.

This means more soil and ground water contamination, not less. And it means greater expenses, not lower.

As for feeding a hungry world, that is not a matter of global crop shortages, Percy says, but rather of costs and distribution. The hungry of the world are also the poor of the world, and they cannot pay to buy produce or seeds every year.

Patenting life forms and seeds is a way to mass starvation, in his opinion. This is the reason why the group of Dr. Vandanna Shiva, representing the interests of Third World farmers, is joining Schmeiser's legal action before the Supreme Court of Canada.

As for the claims of bigger yields, and more nutritious crops, here are some statistics Schmeiser quoted: Yields of GM canola are 15 per cent lower than yields of non-GM canola. The nutritional value of GM canola is 50 per cent lower than the nutritional value of non-GM canola.

Canada relies on the in-house studies Monsanto provides without testing their claims, Schmeiser said, adding that, on the other hand, Japan and the European Union did independent tests and discovered that the claims made by the Monsanto in-house studies were incorrect. Neither Japan, Korea nor the European Union will now buy GM crops from Canada. This represents a huge financial loss to Canada and to Canada's farmers.

Is there a closer relationship between Monsanto and our Ministry of Agriculture than meets the eye? In the upcoming battle looming over another GM crop, genetically modified wheat, Monsanto has promised Agriculture Canada 10 per cent royalties on sales of this GM wheat, if it is approved by Canada. In a direct way, Monsanto is paying Canada's Ministry of Agriculture to cut our farmers' economic throats -- a betrayal of fiduciary trust.

This is a shocking, and to many Canadians, an incredible development. Wheat is Canada's major agri-export item. To date, over 80 per cent of our wheat customers have stated, often in writing, that they will not buy wheat from us if it is genetically altered.

Why would our own government be ensuring the loss of 80 per cent of our major export crop revenues? And why is Monsanto testing its GM wheat on open, government-owned farm plots, Schmeiser asks?

Canadians might well ask whether ensuring such a loss of revenues isn't equivalent to sabotage of the national interest on the part of our Ministry of Agriculture? Is this tragedy developing merely for 10 per cent royalties on sales? And if no one will buy the crop, what will the royalties amount to then?

Schmeiser explained another aspect of GM crop cross-pollination of which most Canadians might be unaware. This aspect could impact not only economics, but also the environment and public health.

The GM genes do not cross-pollinate only with the one specific crop, as for example canola to canola, Schmeiser said. The effect carries over to any other crops of that whole botanical family. Family is the broadest category of plant relationships. In this way, canola genes have spontaneously moved into radishes, another member of the family, among other food crops. All members of the family can become spontaneously altered if the GM pollens floating in the air come into contact with them at the right time.

Thus we now have, through unexpected accident, genetically modified radishes and several other vegetables of the canola botanical family.

An even more catastrophic situation would come to pass with GM wheat. Wheat is a member of the grass family. This huge botanical family extends from grassy weeds right down to lawn grasses and other grass- type crop grains, such as rye, oats, barley and others. So with one fell swoop, our entire grain agriculture could become contaminated. And of course there would go more of our agricultural export markets, more farm bankruptcies, more suffering, to say nothing of the possibility of more adverse health effects down the road.

As the weeds and crops become herbicide resistant, more and more toxic chemicals are being developed to keep the weeds down, Schmeiser says. And it is not only a matter of herbicide resistant crabgrass. Remember that the toxic spray enters right into the structure of the food crop as well, and "keeps right on working" -- right to your dinner table.

Not only that, rain washes the poisons that land on the soils into our streams and into the ground water. You and I will be drinking this water right from the tap. And don't bet on bottled water being pure.

In his closing remarks, Percy Schmeiser mentioned the little known use of GM plants in the pharmaceutical industry. Remember that several of the big international chemical corporations are also major producers of pharmaceuticals.

The latest corporate endeavour is prescription drugs made from GM plants. These are already a big thing in the U.S., where six drugs and plastics are now derived from GM corn, according to Schmeiser. And this corn is already cross-pollinating with natural plants (of that entire botanical family).

Sunflowers and maize are used in vaccines, industrial enzymes, blood thinners, blood-clotting proteins, growth hormones, and contraceptive pills (it stops sperm production). These pharmaceutical plants are being produced in open fields. The effects of their spread into our food chain could be catastrophic. What if you are in need of blood-clotting agents, but the food you eat is contaminated with blood thinners, or vice versa? Also, are industrial solvents really healthy for humans? At this point it's anybody's guess. One suspects more tragedies will happen and causes will be denied by both corporations and governments, especially if governments get royalties from promoting these chimeras.

We must demand mandatory labeling, which 90 per cent of polled Canadians want, Schmeiser concludes. The corporations resist. They know people won't buy their products, but Canadians must be vociferous in their demands for freedom of choice.

If we are careless with these experiments into our survival, it may well be that in the next few years organic crops will no longer be produceable in Canada, or in this hemisphere. What will that do to our health? What will that do to our organic foods industry?

A few brave researchers have experimented with animals. British researcher Arpad Pustay fed GM potatoes to pigs and noted serious health affects. A German farmer fed his cattle GM feed and they all died. Much more research is needed.

Once released from the laboratory, Schmeiser says, there are no walls high enough to prevent pollen drift. The only way is to stop these toxic experiments taking place outside of secure, indoor laboratories.

There are some profoundly troubling issues arising from the story told by farmer Schmeiser. Given the response from the nearly 900 people packed into the room, many Canadians share these concerns.

Concern alone will take Canadians nowhere, without some active initiative. For example, people might well ask their government representatives whether the powers of private corporations have not gone too far in limiting the citizen's democratic freedoms. If corporations are viewed as persons before the law, why should they be free to assault citizens without being themselves accountable for abuses (for example, contaminating farmers' crops) before the law?

There is another legal action under way, raising this very issue. The Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD) is launching an action against Monsanto for threatening to destroy the livelihood of some farmers by contaminating their organic crops. For more information about this initiative, contact SOD secretary Marc Loiselle at loiselle@sasktel.net . (They are in need of financial help for this action.)

Once organic farms are contaminated, Capers and other popular organic produce stores will have a difficult time finding organic produce grown on this continent. There are already rumours of secret GM test plots here in British Columbia in the North Okanagan. This risky technology is coming home to haunt all of us.

Then there are the troubling potential long-term health effects such as the consumption of traces of herbicides. Consumers must realize that Monsanto's Roundup (and no doubt other firms' products) cannot be washed off produce. As Monsanto's Roundup TV ads say, Roundup enters right into the structure of the crop and "keeps right on working". These are their own words. No amount of rain will wash it off.

Doesn't that mean consumers are eating Roundup with their veggies and canola oil? One would tend to think so. What health effects will this have over time?

Glyphosphate has been shown to have a variety of deleterious effects on test animals. Will we find out the hard way 20 years from now that these chemicals cause pandemics of disease and ill health?

Given that farmers have to apply more of the chemicals to get rid of the toughened weeds than they used to, what might be the long-term effects on our water and soils. These persistent poisons land on the soils. From the soils they will wash into ground water. Then, of course, people drink the contaminated water. What might be the long term effects of this?

We need more research, and we need to apply the precautionary principle -- right now.

And what government in their right mind would approve a technology that will mean an 80 per cent loss of sales revenue from our major agricultural crop -- a technology to which even the Farmer's Union is strongly opposed? This is the situation with the upcoming approval of GM wheat.

Preventing this folly needs immediate action. The new Minister of Agriculture is Bob Speller. Write him postage free on Parliament Hill. The same for PM Paul Martin. A hard copy letter is harder to ignore than an e-mail. Don't forget to let your MP know how you feel as well.

Royalties gained will be easily offset by lost markets, and once this genie is out of the bottle, watch out.

Another issue that troubles many is the lack of grocery product labelling. Schmeiser said that between 60 and 70 per cent of all grocery foods are already contaminated with GM content. Citizens must have a choice of options, which means we need compulsory grocery product labeling.

Then there are the more subtle, long-term health implications about which no one is talking -- perhaps people aren't even aware of it.

If it takes 100,000 years for people to adapt to new foods, does that mean that a food which has several unfamiliar gene combinations is perceived by our bodies as a new food, and could this have possible negative health effects?

American Naturopath Dr. Peter D'Adamo (Eat Right 4 Your Type) has put forward the thesis that diet requirements vary depending on the person's blood type, determined by evolution. People of the very oldest blood type, 0, have not yet adapted to grain agriculture, even though it's been around for several thousand years, and this group seem to do better on the so-called "stone age diet".

Will a GMO diet have negative effects on all current blood types? Will we need to mutate our blood types to adapt to it? How many millennia will that take? What happens in the interim? Has anyone even considered asking these types of questions?

So far it seems to be all about corporate profits and the rights of corporate persons. Perhaps it's time we began to consider the rights of real human beings for a change.

Africa refused GM foods

Biotech companies are quick to exploit hunger for profit. But thanks to African scientists who saw the pitfalls, they did not get a toehold there when drought plagued southern Africa two summers ago.

The U.S. offered help in the form of food that had come from genetically modified (GM) crops. But Africans said "Thanks, but no thanks." They knew that GM crops had been associated with health and environmental dangers. They had seen Europe reject the technology. And they had seen what happened to Canada's Percy Schmeiser. If one seed of the gifted food accidentally took root, Africans might be billed for "technology fees" by Monsanto.

Massive U.S. bullying exposed the cynical complicity of the American government while it fronted for corporate greed and accused African governments of allowing their people to starve. In the final analysis, most accepted the GM corn, but only if it was ground so that no plantable seeds could reach African soil. Only Zambia refused GM food of any kind.

As drought plagued southern Africa in the summer of 2002, biotech companies lost no time in exploiting hunger for profit. The US offered to "help" by donating food from GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. But African scientists knew there was a catch. They had seen demonstrations showing that Europe wanted no part of the technology. They knew that GMOs were associated with health and environmental dangers. Worst of all, the Percy Schmeiser case suggested that if GMO seed was planted in Africa, the next generation of GMO plants could result in farmers owing "technology fees" to biomaster Monsanto.

Countries throughout Africa denounced the food-for-control ploy of the US. US spokespersons brayed that African leaders were letting their people starve. After massive US bullying, most African countries agreed to accept GM corn if it was milled (ground so that seeds could not be planted). Zambia refused GM food of any kind. The conflict scored a tremendous moral victory in exposing the cynical complicity of the US government in fronting for corporate greed.

Formerly a planner in governmental agencies across Canada, Eva Lyman now lives in B.C. where she devotes her time to environmental advocacy projects. For more information on this topic, visit the web site: www.percyschmeiser.com