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Schmeiser Loses Again; Will the Rest of Us?

06.sep.02, Benjamin Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Percy Schmeiser, Canadian canola farmer and international genetically engineered (GE) crop martyr, has again lost in a court of law. A panel of three federal court judges on Thursday dismissed an appeal against an earlier conviction for knowingly planting patent-protected GE canola on his Bruno, Sask. farm. Unfortunately, this may only further his standing in the court of public opinion.
Big-bad multinational Monsanto dragged Schmeiser into court after it was suspected that he had been growing a GE Roundup Ready variety of canola and had not been paying the licensing fees that thousands of other Canadian farmers had willingly paid. A Canadian federal court ruled in 2001 that he had indeed infringed Monsanto's patent.
Schmeiser has stood by his defense that the GE canola was blown into his field by passing seed trucks and then cross pollinated his crop, resulting in the detectable traits; at least until the a few months ago, when Schmeiser took a new tack, declaring that he had indeed deliberately planted the Roundup Ready canola, but that as a farmer, it was his right to brown bag seed or purchase it from a neighbour.
In his original decision, Justice Andrew MacKay ruled that Mr. Schmeiser "knew or ought to have known" that he had saved and planted seed that was Roundup tolerant and had therefore infringed Monsanto's Roundup Ready patented technology.
Justice MacKay pointed to independent tests that showed 1,030 acres of Mr. Schmeiser's canola were 95 per cent to 98 per cent tolerant to Roundup herbicide. At such a high level of tolerance, Justice MacKay ruled the seed could only be of commercial quality and could not have arrived in Mr. Schmeiser's field by accident.
The appeal panel unanimously rejected all of Mr. Schmeiser's 17 points of contention, leaving only the Supreme Court of Canada as the last refuge for legal appeals.
Of course, this won't prevent Mr. Schmeiser from touring the world -- he recently returned from Australia -- preaching against the evils of multinationals. After all, the court of public opinion has a much lower standard for admissibility of evidence, one that seems to exponentially decrease the further one travels from home.
Schmeiser has been on a public relations whirlwind since the initial lawsuit was filed against him in 2000. He has been to Africa, India, New Zealand and Australia twice. In two weeks he is scheduled to embark on a trip to U.S. Midwest, including Monsanto's hometown, St. Louis. He has touted the terror and fear that Monsanto has allegedly directed at him, including the purported use of a herbicide bomb on his acreage to discover if his crop was really Roundup resistant. All this in the name of fighting the biotech companies that are supposedly enslaving Percy and others. Except that this year, some 70 per cent of canola grown in Canada is expected to be derived from GE varieties, chosen by farmers of their own accord.
Overall, the use of genetically engineered crops in North America continues to increase. Some 70 per cent of canola, 35 per cent of corn and 30 per cent of soybeans grown in Canada will be from genetically engineered varieties this year. In the U.S., about 75 per cent of soybeans, 70 per cent of cotton and 30 per cent of filed corn will be GE.
Part of the reason is a 46 million pound reduction in pesticide use in the U.S. in 2001 because of genetically engineered crops such as cotton, canola, soy and field corn. Such crops helped American farmers reap an additional 14 billion pounds of food and improve farm income by $2.5 billion.
The most recent study from the Washington-based National Center for Food and Agricultural also predicted that if the 32 other biotech crop varieties still under development were planted, they would reduce pesticide use by 117 million pounds per year, bringing total pesticide reduction for all biotech crops to 163 million pounds annually. Field corn resistant to rootworm, which could be approved in the U.S. in the next few weeks, could replace 14 million pounds of insecticides used on this crop each year (the complete report, commissioned with a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, and later expanded with industry funding, was reviewed by nearly 70 plant biotechnology scientists from 20 academic and government institutions and is available at www.ncfap.org).
Closer to home, Percy's own production organization, the Canola Council of Canada, published a study in 2000 demonstrating that planting herbicide tolerant canola resulted in a 29 per cent reduction of chemical use, increased yields and contributed to a net gain of $5.80 an acre. In short, certain genetically engineered crops, on certain farms, can help farmers produce safe, affordable food while minimizing the environmental impact. But that isn't what Percy Schmeiser or the anti-GE campaign will have you believe.
Stompin' Tom Connors sang a song that if it weren't for copyright laws (not that Schmeiser has shown much respect for legally-protected things) would probably become Mr. Schmeiser's theme. A line of the lyrics reads: I'm a poor, poor farmer, what am I going to do? Now that he has been instructed to pay Monsanto's court fees of $153,000, he really will be.
Schmeiser has been preaching a tale of corporate omnipotence, but only after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. His rants against corporate rule have nothing to do with the safety of genetically engineered foods. It appears that good old Percy, practical as are most farmers, wanted to use a product that worked but didn't want to pay for the technology.
As several African countries approached mass starvation conditions in the past few weeks, a debate raged over the safety of GE crops and whether U.S. food aid containing GE corn was safe or suitable. Those African countries have now agreed to accept the same food eaten routinely by Canadian and Americans, but not after considerable effort debunking the mythologies spread by Schmeiser and others.
As the World Summit for Sustainable Development wrapped up this week a group of African and Asian farmers presented three NGOs including Greenpeace with a trophy comprising of dried cow dung on a piece of wood. The award, aptly entitled the "Bullshit Trophy", was handed over to the organizations for their contribution to the "preservation of poverty".
Percy Schmeiser had my vote long ago. The courts apparently agree.

As several African countries approached mass starvation conditions in the past few weeks, a debate raged over the safety of GE crops and whether U.S. food aid containing GE corn was safe or suitable. Those African countries have now agreed to accept the same food eaten routinely by Canadian and Americans, but not after considerable effort debunking the mythologies spread by Schmeiser and others.

Benjamin Chapman is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph in Canada