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Small Farmer Fights Monsanto in Canada's Supreme Court

Associated Press Online
January 19, 2004

Small Canadian Farmer Fights Monsanto

By: PAUL ELIAS; AP Biotechnology Writer

OTTAWA, CANADA


The case of a small-time farmer from the remote Saskatchewan plains, now
before Canada's highest court, may represent the best chance yet for foes of
the global biotech revolution to get the law on their side.

Agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. sued the farmer, Percy Schmeiser, after its
agents found biotech canola growing in his fields in 1997. It contends he
replanted seeds from those plants without paying a technology fee of about
$12 an acre.

But Schmeiser says the Monsanto canola, originating from neighbors' fields,
got onto his 1,400 acres without his involvement or knowledge. The
73-year-old farmer says the contamination of his crops destroyed a lifetime
of work improving them, so it's hardly right that he would have to pay for
Monsanto's seed.

The biotech seed could have migrated to Schmeiser's land as airborne pollen,
carried by animals or spilled from a cart, he speculates.

But Monsanto, which has a lien on Schmeiser's farm after two lower-court
victories, says there was simply too much biotech canola in his fields for
the accidental exposure explanation to be credible.

It insists Schmeiser must pay every year for seed, just like 30,000 other
canola farmers in Canada, where roughly half the 10 million acres of canola
have been converted since 1996 to Monsanto's variety, which is engineered to
survive the company's patented weed killer Roundup.

"The bottom line for us is that his possession and growing was not an
accident," Monsanto spokeswoman Trish Jordan said.

Schmeiser may find more sympathy during his hearing Tuesday before Canada's
Supreme Court, which a little more than a year ago refused to grant Harvard
University a "patent on life" for a genetically engineered mouse.

His supporters also include the government of Ontario, which argues that
public health suffers when life forms are patented. The province is ignoring
patents held by Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City on two genes implicated in
breast cancer, administering its own cancer tests at a third of Myriad's
list price.

The Canadian justices will hold three hours of arguments Tuesday, and rule
in several months.

A decision against Monsanto would be a tremendous boost for the forces
mobilizing against biotechnology. Dozens of activist groups have descended
on Canada's frigid capital, determined to make Schmeiser an international
cause celebre.

They're also hunting for a U.S. Schmeiser to challenge the St. Louis-based
company - perhaps from among the 90 farmers activists say Monsanto has sued
for seed theft since 1997.

"This is so much bigger than Percy," said Nadege Adam of the Council of
Canadians, which formed a coalition of Schmeiser defenders that also
includes the Sierra Club of Canada and the Washington D.C.-based
International Center for Technology Assessment.

Monsanto, which sold more than $1.6 billion in genetically engineered seeds
last year after spending about $500 million on research and development, has
tried to downplay Schmeiser's fame. The company stresses that it has no
choice but to crack down on any farmer using its technology for free.

"Clearly, we believe that respect for intellectual property is important,"
Jordan said. "We have invested quite a bit in this technology and we expect
people to play by the rules and we expect a return on it."

For centuries, farmers have improved their crops by culling their best
plants and husbanding seeds for the next planting season. Developing nations
see these practices as sacrosanct, but increasingly threatened by the spread
of genetically modified crops, which even subsistence farmers are required
to pay for each year.

In the end, it's the questions about life itself that have attracted all the
attention from farmers, activists, biotech lobbyists and the international
press corps.

"Who can patent life, and who owns life, whether it's seeds, plants, animals
and so on?" Schmeiser asked Monday at a news conference. "Those are some of
the main issues that really concern me on a personal level."

Schmeiser views the dispute through a property rights prism, arguing that no
corporation should have the control Monsanto has asserted over the farms
where its patented varieties of crops are grown.

Similar views are strongly held in India, South America and elsewhere in the
developing world. Led by the Indian activist Vandana Shiva, that movement
has galvanized around Schmeiser, a former conservative Catholic member of
his provincial parliament and ex-mayor of Bruno, Saskatchewan (population:
600).

Schmeiser has visited 40 countries in the last two years, receiving standing
ovations from organic farming conventions and anti-biotech rallies from
Marin County, Calif. to Osaka, Japan. Worldwide donations have poured in.

Still, Schmeiser has paid a steep price for refusing to settle. He owes
Monsanto about $140,000 in judgments, amassed legal fees of $230,000, and
has rented out all but 140 acres of his farm.

"The stress this has caused my family is unreal," said Schmeiser, who
considers himself an accidental activist.

"It was not by choice," he said. "I'd rather be fishing with my 15
grandchildren."

On the Net:

Schmeiser: http://www.percyschmeiser.com

Monsanto: http://www.monsanto.com

Canada Supreme Court: http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca/Welcome/index-e.asp




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