Seeds of Doubt

Monsanto in Court

Did Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser intentionally plant patented, genetically engineered (GE) seed on his Saskatchewan farm in 1997 and 1998? Chemical giant Monsanto says he did; he says he didn"t. The question is important, because Schmeiser has become a major figure in the anti-GE movement, lecturing widely on the wrongs done him by Monsanto.

A Canadian federal court ruled in 2001 that Schmeiser violated Monsanto’s patent—regardless of how the seed got there—and must pay the company nearly $100,000. Anti-genetic-engineering activists call him David fighting a corporate Goliath.

Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser says he never intended to plant Monsanto"s patented seeds.© AP Photo / Steve Yeater

The case is now headed for Canada’s Supreme Court, with Schmeiser’s countersuit against Monsanto following close behind. The Saskatchewan farmer argues the chemical giant contaminated the environment and his crops through inadequate safeguards to prevent the spread of pollen and seed for its herbicide-resistant canola.

In 1996, Monsanto began marketing seed for plants that withstand the company’s ubiquitous herbicide, RoundUp (glyphosate). Farmers who want the seed must buy it new from the company each year, sign special agreements to spray only Monsanto herbicides and allow company officials

unfettered access to their fields. Anyone else caught growing the "RoundUp Ready" canola violates the patent and risks legal action from Monsanto.

Is it plausible that RoundUp Ready seed got on Schmeiser’s field by mistake? Published studies have found that pollen from genetically engineered canola can contaminate fields more than 1.5 miles away. The lightweight seed also bounces off passing trucks, contaminating non-engineered fields across a wider range.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba are shortly to publish findings that 32 of 33 supposedly GE-free seed lots in Canada were contaminated by as much as five percent genetically engineered seed.

Schmeiser’s case is more complicated. Unlike most farmers who buy new seed each year, Schmeiser saved his own to replant. He discovered the herbicide-resistant seed during the common practice of spraying RoundUp around roadside power poles edging his land.

Lyle Friesen—who led the University of Manitoba study and tested the seed from Schmeiser’s field for the court case—doesn’t doubt that the seed got there by blowing off a truck. But, he says, by the time Monsanto officials found it, there was enough of it growing that it must have been planted. Some fields had five percent GE crops, some up to 67 percent, Friesen says. Years of unwitting replanting of engineered seed could not account for the highest of those levels, he says.

Schmeiser acknowledges that he saved the Monsanto seed, but he claims that he planted it only by accident. Now the courts will once again have to rule on his veracity.