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Don't pity poor Percy

(Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Kevin Hursh, The Leader-Post (Regina), 01/21/04: Poor, downtrodden Percy. Some of those evil Roundup Ready canola seeds blew onto his property from passing trucks and now the huge multi-national monster known as Monsanto is trying to crush him like a bug.

What a hero for farmers everywhere. What an international icon. What a David taking on Goliath.

What a crock.

Many people love to cheer for the underdog and many people love to see anyone put the screws to large agri-business. But the Schmeiser / Monsanto Supreme Court case has lost any semblance of rational perspective.

Monsanto has no interest in going after farmers who by accident have Roundup Ready canola on their land. In fact, the accidental spread of the crop is a worry and embarrassment for the company.

Most of the news stories donít mention the fact that Schmeiser had over a thousand acres of canola, which by independent analysis, was shown to be well over 90 per cent Roundup Ready. He isnít quite the innocent bystander portrayed in many media reports.

Percy has become an international star by dragging the issue through the court system. That was his choice. How sorry should we feel about his mounting court costs? No one seems to be saying how many dollars misguided environmental bleeding hearts have contributed to his campaign. His stardom may actually be a net benefit, with all the limelight an added bonus.

Patenting plant genes is an interesting issue and one that is worthy of debate, but unfortunately the Schmeiser case has generated all sorts of misconceptions about agriculture.

Herbicide tolerant crops and genetically modified crops are not synonymous. Herbicide tolerance has often been achieved through conventional plant breeding methods. CLEARFIELD canola is a prime example. CLEARFIELD lentils are now being developed and again this is through conventional plant breeding. They will not be considered GM (genetically modified).

Some people seem to believe that if Schmeiser wins the Supreme Court challenge, GM crop development will stop. Thatís not the case.

Certainly, Canada will no longer look like a hospitable nation in which to invest research dollars, but there are other ways for companies to get paid for GM crops. The top one on the list is hybrids and the canola industry is already moving in that direction. With hybrids, the crop a farmer producers is not suitable as seed. Thus, to use a hybrid system, a farmer has to buy new seed each year.

If patenting of genes is struck down by the Supreme Court, companies may still be able to patent the processes by which they developed GM crops. And the country still has protection for new crop varieties under Plant Breedersí Rights legislation.

Itís also interesting to note that some companies make their new herbicide resistance traits widely available, because they make their money off the sale of that specific herbicide. Herbicides can still be patented, even if plant genes canít be.

Letís explode another fallacy. Not matter the outcome of the Schmeiser case, there will continue to be many cropping options where the farmer has a contractual obligation to use purchased pedigreed seed. In many of these contracts, all of the crop has to be returned, and the farmer is not allowed to save seed.

These contracts are good for farmers or they wouldnít sign them. Personally, Iíve already signed two such contracts for the upcoming growing season. One is for a GM crop and one is conventional. Both have to be Identity Preserved from other production.

This type of contract exists beyond canola. Even for the market development programs of the Canadian Wheat Board or special contracts such as spring wheat grown for Warburtonís, the farmer is required to purchase pedigreed seed.

Cheer for the underdog if you want, but Percy Schmeiser isnít doing anything to improve the bottom line on my farm.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural communicator and farmer from Saskatchewan