A tremendous amount of misinformation put out by groups with an agenda makes if very hard for the general public to distinguishing ‘the wheat from the chaff’ when it comes to genetically engineered (GE) crops and food. The Percy Schmeiser case is a prime example.

  Biotechnology has engineered a variety of crops known as herbicide tolerant (HT) crops. These HT crops are unaffected when sprayed with particular broad-spectrum herbicides, such as the popular Roundup Ready (RR) crops produced by Monsanto. RR canola allows the farmer to spray a canola crop with Roundup and only the weeds will die. If a farmer plants these HT varieties, he can expect higher yields plus cheaper and easier weed control. According to the Canadian Canola Growers Association, adoption of biotech canola seeds has resulted in a reduction of chemical use by 29 percent and an increase in profits for the farmer of $5.80 per acre. Adoption rates argue these biotech seeds are indeed a better product for farmers. Today 70 percent of Canadian canola farmers grow genetically engineered herbicide tolerant canola varieties – a rapid change given that these GE canola varieties have only been available for eight years.

Biotech seeds cost farmers more than other types of seed, and any farmer who wants to grow these GE varieties must sign a technology use agreement (TUA), that promises the farmer will not save and replant the biotech seeds the following year. Over 30,000 Canadian farmers have signed, as they know first-hand the benefits to the environment and their bottom-line from growing GE crops.  A fact of modern agriculture has farmers rarely saving seed anymore. Most farmers buy hybrid seed varieties, which will not breed true and, therefore, must be repurchased each year.

In 1997, Mr. Schmeiser sprayed “a good three acres” of his canola crop (designated field number two) with Roundup. One might ask why a farmer would purposely spray an herbicide that should destroy three acres of his crop? Once it was clear that the canola in field number two was herbicide tolerant, Mr. Schmeiser decided to harvest the seed from that field and save it for planting the following year. Clearly most farmers would have realized the canola in field number two was roundup tolerant, since it survived the treatment with Roundup.

The next year Mr. Schmeiser planted 1030 acres in nine fields with seeds saved from the number two field, knowing that the use of such GE seed required a TUA payment. This planting resulted in 1030 acres of 95-98% roundup tolerant canola. When this high level (equivalent to commercial grade seed) was discovered, Mr. Schmeiser was asked by Monsanto to pay the TUA fee of $15 per acre. He refused, and so the court cases began.

On March 29, 2001, the Federal Court of Canada found Mr. Schmeiser guilty of patent infringement. Judge Mackay said in his judgment, “He [Mr. Schmeiser] planted his crop for 1998 with seed that he knew, or ought to have known, was Roundup tolerant.” Mr. Schmeiser appealed.  By now the legal war chest was growing, in part, from significant financial support by groups opposed to genetically engineered crops.

On September 4, 2002, the Federal Court of Appeals upheld the original verdict of the previous court’s ruling. The panel of three judges rejected all seventeen points of appeal put forward by the council for Mr. Schmeiser.

  Mr. Schmeiser’s lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, this time with a twist. Instead of arguing that Mr. Schmeiser did not violate the patent of Monsanto, his lawyer argued that the patent held by Monsanto on Roundup Ready canola was invalid. The grounds – no one should be able to patent any life form.

What started as an obscure case between a farmer and a multinational corporation blossomed into a show the entire biotechnology industry watched very closely. If the high court decided that the patent on the Roundup-tolerant canola was invalid, the ramifications would be huge. It would mean there would no longer be patent protection for biotech products in Canada, leading to an inevitable mass exodus of biotechnology from this country. This was clearly the agenda of the financial backers of Mr. Schmeiser.

So we had a farmer in Bruno, Saskatchewan planting what “he knew, or ought to have known, were roundup tolerant canola seeds,” leading indirectly to the biotechnology industry being threatened in Canada.

Fortunately the Supreme Court also found Mr. Schmeiser guilty.  Canada is one of the world leaders in agricultural biotechnology and the courts have determined that will continue.  People should understand this was not a ‘David vs. Goliath’ case but a ‘Goliath vs. Goliath’ case with David as the front man. The real players were the biotechnology industry and the multinational, billion-dollar anti biotechnology industry.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix April 16 2005

Robert Wager

Malaspina University College