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April 5, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner


Monsanto Pays Percy Schmeiser $660

Few farmers would dare stand up to one of the largest agricultural corporations in the world, but Percy Schmeiser continues his battle.


Jon Steinman


St. Louis Missouri's Monsanto is the world's largest supplier of genetically-engineered crop (GE) technologies. Saskatchewan Farmer Percy Schmeiser is one of the world's most recognized opponents of such crops.


Schmeiser first entered into the spotlight in 1998 when Monsanto accused him of stealing their technology (seeds) and profiting from its use. Schmeiser denied such allegations and insisted that the company's patented Roundup Ready canola seeds had blown onto his farm either through wind drift or from a passing truck. Such contamination scenarios are common on the prairies as canola happens to be of the same family as the tumbleweed.


With insufficient evidence to back up their claim, Monsanto dropped the charge of theft but persisted to challenge Schmeiser for infringing upon their patent. The company was certain that Schmeiser was well aware that his fields had been planted with their proprietary seeds, and with this knowledge, should have paid the company the cost per acre that other farmers are required to incur.


In 2001, a Federal Court ruled in favour of Monsanto, and upon an appeal in 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld that ruling.


With such widespread contamination of canola seed on the prairies, it was no coincidence when in 2005, Schmeiser discovered yet again what he believed was Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola growing on his property.


This was of great concern to Schmeiser. The land on which the plants were found was destined for mustard the following season and as Schmeiser indicates, "you cannot separate mustard and canola."  If the company did indeed own the plants as determined by the 2004 Supreme Court decision, Schmeiser recognized that the company was essentially trespassing on his property. He wanted the plants removed and he called up Monsanto.


Monsanto seems to be well-aware that their technologies are trespassing onto farmers' fields, yet no legal precedent currently exists to determine who remains liable for such damages. The company is nevertheless willing to remove any unwanted plants by hand (not the image one envisions of a global biotechnology giant!), but there is a catch. "Before they would [remove the plants]," said Schmeiser, "we had to sign a release document that indicated we could never take them to court for the rest of our life, no matter how much they contaminated that land in the future and also a gag order that we could not talk to the press or neighbours about what the terms of the settlement were."


Schmeiser refused to "sign away his rights," but Monsanto did not change their approach. They denied the assistance previously offered to Schmeiser.


Schmeiser instead used other means to remove the plants, and he sent Monsanto a bill for $660. When the company refused to pay, Schmeiser filed a suit against the company in small claims court.


On March 19, 2008, the claim was settled out of court. While this was not a legal precedent, Schmeiser claimed victory in the settlement. The two unwanted clauses of the initial release were removed and Monsanto paid Schmeiser the $660. He believes other farmers can now do the same.


Monsanto, however, is telling the Canadian public a different story. Within hours, the company's Public Affairs Director, Trish Jordan, issued a press release. A handful of Canadian print media who chose to cover this story, reprinted one sentence in particular that made reference to the settled agreement on March 19. "It is frustrating that he essentially accepted the same offer we put before him in 2005 at the time we visited with him and offered him solutions," said Jordan in the press release.


Because it had appeared to me that terms of the settlement were instead significantly different than the initial offer, I spoke over the phone with Jordan and asked her to clarify. She appeared quite upset that a journalist was questioning her press release, and I insisted that I was simply interested to hear "both sides of the story". Her response was shocking. "Both sides of the story don't need to be presented," said Jordan rather aggressively.


When questioned why she had indicated that the 2005 release form was in any way close to being the same as the most current form, she insisted that she had never made any such comment. "Why don't you read my press release!," Jordan told me in a very perturbed tone. "I did", I replied.


Again, the press release; "It is frustrating that he essentially accepted the same offer."


In my years as a journalist, I have never been met with such aggravated resistance to a line of substantiated questioning.


Deconstructing Dinner will continue to investigate this story, its implications for Monsanto, the opportunities for farmers, and what, if anything, about this case Monsanto is trying to hide from the Canadian public.


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