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Schmeiser seen as hero by eco-groups

(Sunday, May 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --

Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 05/16/03: Crusading farmer Percy Schmeiser returned home from Italy Tuesday, and stayed just long enough to accept congratulations calls from around the world.

Then he was off again, this time into the lair of his enemy.

"I'm heading to St. Louis, home of Monsanto," the Bruno resident said prior to his departure Thursday morning.

"I'm speaking at the seventh annual world bio-devastation meeting. The St. Louis Dispatch (newspaper) interviewed me for a half-hour yesterday in advance of the conference."

Such is life for Schmeiser, a man who has come to symbolize opposition to the use of genetically modified (GM) seed in agriculture.

In 2000, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that he knowingly violated Monsanto's patent rights by growing Roundup Ready canola without signing a contract with the company. The court ordered him to pay the giant multinational $175,000 in damages. The decision was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal in a unanimous decision.

But last week, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear Schmeiser's appeal of the decision. He has maintained all along that the Roundup Ready seed blew into his field from a passing truck or that his crop was contaminated by pollination.

Schmeiser has been embraced as a hero by environmentalists, consumer groups and the world's anti-globalization movement. Once an anonymous Saskatchewan farmer, he has been transformed into a intrepid David, valiantly challenging a corporate Goliath. He boasts a travel schedule befitting a high-level diplomat or a Rolling Stone.

Schmeiser has visited more than 40 countries during the last four years. He has met the environment minister of every Central American country. He has addressed the European Parliament, met the agriculture ministers of several European countries and given speeches at more than 15 universities. Next month, he goes to Japan.

The globe trotting has come in handy for fund-raising. Schmeiser said he has drained his life savings fighting the case.

"I've been to every continent except the Antarctic," he joked.

"I haven't talked to the penguins yet. But I've talked to a lot of other people. It's something I never thought I would be doing. At 72, I thought I would be at home with my kids.

"But there are so many people around the world dedicated to preserving the environment and maintaining freedom for farmers."

Schmeiser frames his case in simple terms: the right of farmers to retain seed versus the intellectual property rights of a corporation.

Farmers who use Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola aren't allowed to keep seed after harvest. The product's selling point is that it allows farmers to spray for weeds after a crop has emerged, thereby boosting yields. Critics claim Roundup Ready canola and similar products contaminate fields and reduce the independence of farmers.

Monsanto has spent more than $700,000 in legal fees and disbursements fighting the case. In a recent report cited in the National Post, Merrill Lynch analyst Donald Carson said the controversy caused by GM products could drag down the company's long-term earnings.

But Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan dismissed talk of a backlash in an interview Thursday. She said the technology has been embraced by farmers throughout the world.

"The only place they aren't accepted at the current time is Europe. And that has nothing to do with the safety or potential benefits. It's basically a trade barrier. The evidence just doesn't support there is a huge backlash against GM technology. Every year, the number of countries adopting it has gone up. The acreage planted has gone up."

As for Schmeiser's new-found celebrity, Jordan said he has been supported by "activist groups" concerned about larger issues, such as Green Peace, the Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians.

For Monsanto, the basic issue in the case is the fact Schmeiser knowingly and deliberately misappropriated its technology, she said.

"Two Federal Court judgments have shown that to be true, based on the evidence presented."

Jordan said it's imperative Monsanto protect its patent.

Ted Menzies, past-president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, agreed. He said farmers could lose the long-term advantages of biotechnology because "somebody doesn't like playing by the rules."

"If we want companies to develop crops that have higher tolerance to frost, that have higher tolerance to drought, do we expect them to do it for nothing? No. Why should we? That's not the way the world works."