When Monsanto decided to take Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser to court for using its seeds, the US biotech giant didn’t know it was creating a folk hero for the anti-GM crop movement.
Since losing a series of court battles with Monsanto, Schmeiser has been travelling the world on a crusade against genetically modified (GM) crops and patenting seeds, speaking to environment groups and public gatherings.
“I’ve always campaigned on the right of a farmer to save and use his own seed,” Schmeiser told an anti-GM conference of environmentalists and farmers in the Indian capital this week.
GM crops have become a hot-button issue in India with some seeing it as key to boosting food output while others fear the long-term impact of such a step.
“No one should have the right to patent life, it’s a mad science,” said the 76-year-old Schmeiser.
Schmeiser’s run-in with Monsanto began in 1998 when the company told him he had infringed a patent for a genetically modified strain of canola it found growing on his farm in Saskatchewan.
In the landmark “seed piracy” case which went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and drew global attention, he claimed the canola seeds were carried by the wind into his field.
In a narrow 5-4 decision in 2004, the court gave no opinion on how the seeds got onto his land. But it did rule Schmeiser knew what the seeds were when he saved some from his harvest and planted a bigger crop the next year.
He had insisted he did not know the seeds were those Monsanto had patented.
The former mayor of the small Saskatchewan town of Bruno maintains he had the right to plant the seeds as “farmers down through history” have had the right to plant their own seeds.
The judges decided if the plant contained a patented gene, the patent-holder had rights over the use of the plant. It was the first time a top court of any nation had ruled on patent issues involving seed genes.
Monsanto, which says it must strictly police its “no replant” policy to recoup huge sums spent developing seeds and to provide ever more productive ones, hailed the ruling.
It said it set a “world standard in intellectual property protection.”
Despite the loss, Schmeiser has not given up fighting against GM crops and seed patents.
Schmeiser, whose travel bills are often paid by groups opposed to bio-engineering, says he plans on being a thorn in the GM industry’s side as long as he is physically able.
The farmer is off to Japan next month to attend a Greenpeace event.
“If you believe in something you have got to give it all you can which is what I am doing,” he told AFP in an interview.
Today genetically altered seeds can be found in hundreds of crop varieties sold under licence. Just a few US and European agricultural companies control much of the world’s certified food seed supply and Monsanto is the largest.
Many farmers report increased yields and lower use of pesticides with GM crops. GM companies also say GM seeds can mean nutritionally enhanced food to better feed the worlds hungry.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said late last year the country needed to “strike a balance between using the potential of biotechnical to meet the requirements of hungry people, while addressing ethical concerns about interfering with nature.”
India has so far not allowed cultivation of GM crops for human consumption and cotton is the only such crop grown commercially.
GM critics say there is not enough research to determine that such GM crops are safe for people to eat or for the environment.
“Once you introduce a life form into the environment there’s no calling it back. You can’t contain the wind, you can’t contain the seed movement. You can’t contain it and it will spread, says Schmeiser, a third-generation farmer.
“You cant stop birds and bees from moving seed and this means organic and farmers using GM crops cant coexist,” Schmeiser said.
Schmeisers biggest worry now is a package of genes known as the “terminator.” When introduced into seeds, the genes make sure the ensuing plants can never produce seeds of their own — helping solve the seed piracy problem.
However, critics say this would make poor farmers around the world dependent on companies to provide them with the seeds each year. There is a UN moratorium at present blocking commercialisation of terminator seeds.
“It is the greatest assault on life we have ever seen on the face of the planet – seeds that are sterile,” Schmeiser said.
Agence France Presse