Genetically altered seeds continue to produce as much controversy as they do crops.
In the latest scene in the ongoing seed soap opera, Canadian grain farmer Percy Schmeiser is headed to court in a landmark lawsuit involving the agrichemical and biotech giant Monsanto Corporation, the same company responsible for the controversial Terminator seed technology (see MOTHER EARTH NEWS June/July 1999, "Suicidal Seeds" by Heather Cox). Monsanto has launched a lawsuit against Schmeiser, claiming the 68-year-old farmer illicitly acquired the company's genetically altered Roundup Ready Canola seeds and was using them to produce an unlicensed canola crop on his farmland. Schmeiser denies ever having purchased or planted Monsanto's Roundup seeds, and has responded with a $10 million countersuit.
"The fact that a company can produce and sell GMOs [genetically modified organisms] without any regard for the environment or farmers points to a serious flaw in the system," says Schmeiser.
The genetically altered seeds in question contain a transplanted gene that makes them resistant to Roundup herbicide, Monsanto's most commercially successful weed killer. By spraying Roundup herbicide on Roundup Ready Canola, farmers can eliminate the weeds in their fields without damaging the genetically modified plants. The result is a weed-free crop that produces higher yields and bigger profits. The number of Canadian farmers growing Roundup Ready Canola has grown to more than 20,000 - up 8,000 from a year ago.
However, Schmeiser's statement of claim against Monsanto (he says he's the victim of unwanted cross-pollination) echoes the concerns of many Canadian farmers who worry that their conventional crops could be contaminated by wind-borne genetic pollution.
"This is a callous disregard for the environment," says Schmeiser. "I'm going to keep fighting this because I believe this is an issue that affects every farmer."
Farmers have also criticized Monsanto for its aggressive efforts to identify unauthorized Roundup growers. In an attempt to crackdown on seed piracy, Monsanto employs private investigators who conduct random farm audits and collect crop samples from the fields of alleged violators. To solidify its case against Schmeiser, Monsanto investigators entered the farmer's fields without his consent and collected crop samples without his permission.
And that may not be the worst of the company's tactics: Edward Kram, a Raymore, Saskatchewan, farmer, claims a spray plane dropped an unidentified chemical on his couple field to determine if genetically modified plants were being grown. Kram has pictures of dead patches in the middle of his canola field but has no way of proving who applied the chemical or who contracted the aircraft.
"I've heard of that, [but] to my knowledge, we have not done that and nor would I condone it," says Monsanto spokesman Craig Evans. "Spraying Roundup by air is an illegal application . . . so it's certainly not something that Monsanto has authorized."
Evans also suggests that the vast majority of farmers support the company's efforts to minimize patent infringements and to ensure a level playing field for all candle producers.
Mediation talks between Schmeiser and Monsanto broke down last August. The two sides are scheduled to appear in the Federal Court of Canada this June.