Blowin' in the Wind
Percy Schmeiser has spent fifty years farming
his land near Bruno, Saskatchewan. Now suddenly,
Schmeiser is fighting what may be the strangest battle
in the history of agriculture.
"My grandfather and my father homesteaded here,"
Schmeiser says. "There was no such thing as chemical
companies, or even seed companies. They were free and
independent." Schmeiser learned a long time ago that
the wind is often a farmer's worst enemy. Wind blows
the seeds and pollen of weeds into farm fields,
choking out crops. But now the wind may have brought a
new threat to Schmeiser's farm, forcing him to fight
for control of the seeds planted in his field.
Schmeiser has picked a fight with the biggest boy on
the block; he's battling the world's largest
agrochemical company, Monsanto.
Monsanto makes the weedkiller called Roundup.
Spray it onto a field and it kills everything growing
there. But now Monsanto has genetically engineered a
canola seed so that Roundup doesn't hurt it. That
means a farmer can spray Roundup herbicide over an
entire field, kill all the weeds growing there, and
not hurt the canola crops, as long as it comes from
Monsanto's special seed. Many Canadian farmers want
the special canola seeds containing Monsanto's DNA.
But while farmers can buy the special seed, Monsanto
keeps the rights to the DNA itself. That's what makes
the seed special and that's where Monsanto makes its
Farmers traditionally plant their fields
using seeds saved from their previous year's crop.
Just like in human beings, the DNA of seeds is passed
along from generation to generation. A farmer could
buy Monsanto's special seed once, then never have to
pay for it again; all the benefits, without the cost.
So the problem for Monsanto is protecting its
investment. In the brave new world of agriculture,
it's Monsanto versus the farmer.
Farmers buying Monsanto's seed must sign a
contract promising to buy fresh seed every year. Then,
they must let Monsanto inspect their fields for
cheating. Monsanto's regional director in Western
Canada is Randy Christenson. He says the company has
to be tough. "We've put years, years and years of
research and time into developing this technology. So
for us to be able to recoup our investment, we have to
be able to be paid for that, Christenson says. Percy
Schmeiser says he's never used Monsanto's seed. He
saves the seeds from his own crops, then replants them
in the spring.
But Monsanto investigators say they've found
Monsanto DNA in Schmeiser's crops. Monsanto says
Schmeiser never paid for the rights to use its DNA.
Now they're suing Schmeiser for the money.
"I've been farming for fifty years, and all of
the sudden I have this," Schmeisser says, "It's very
upsetting and nerve wracking to have a multi-giant
corporation come after you. I don't have the resources
to fight this."
Monsanto first got a tip about Schmeiser on its
toll-free snitchline. Monsanto asks farmers to turn-in
neighbors they suspect of growing the seed without
paying. Monsanto uses private investigators from a
Saskatoon firm to check out the tips. Investigators
patrolling grid roads took crop samples from
Schmeiser's fields to check for Monsanto's DNA.
Monsanto doesn't apologize for playing
hardball. But the Monsanto representatives insist the
whole process is very friendly. Monsanto calls its
"Yes, we do have a group that do audit, they do
make farm visits, but they do it in a way that is
extremely respectful to the farmers," Christensen says
"And, in fact, I would encourage you to talk to the
farmers who have been through it. They're very
comfortable with what they're doing." We never, never,
go on their property, never, without their
But court documents show Monsanto ordered its
investigators to trespass into Schmeiser's fields and
collect samples. Then Monsanto agents paid a secret
visit to the company that processes Schmeiser's seeds
Gary Pappenfus was the manager. "We were
approached by someone in Monsanto asking
if Percy had some seed treated there, we said there
was. They asked for a sample. I asked my superior in
Saskatoon if it was okay to give a sample, he said it
was okay, so we did," Pappenfoot says. Monsanto says
Schmeiser has stolen its DNA.
In fact, Monsanto has accused dozens of farmers
of growing the special seed without paying for it.
The problem is, Mother Nature has been moving
around for thousands of years. Monsanto's is just the
latest. "It will blow in the wind. you can't control
it. you can't just say, put a fence around it and say
that's where it stops. It might end up 10 miles, 20
miles," Schmeiser says.
Schmeiser is backed up by some impressive
research. scientists from Agriculture Canada say wind
can blow seeds or pollen between field, meaning the
DNA of crops in one field often mixes with another.
Seeds or pollen can also be blown off uncovered trucks
and off farm equipment. But Monsanto seems to be
saying it's up to farmers to dig out any Monsanto
crops blowing into their fields.
Without a microscope, there's no way to tell
regular crops, from crops carrying the Monsanto DNA.
This means even the seed farmers keep from their own
crops may contain Monsanto's altered gene.
Last year, Edward Zilinski of Micado
traded seeds with a farmer from
Prince Albert. This is an old farming
tradition. But the seeds he got in
return had Monsanto's DNA. Now
Monsanto says Zilinski and his wife
owe them over $28,000 in penalties.
"Farmer's should have some rights of their
own!" Zilinski says. Monsanto's heavy-hand is sparking
the anger of many farmers in Western Canada.
The Kram family in Raymore say planes and a
helicopter have buzzed their fields. The couple says
agents dropped weedkiller on their canola field, to
see if the crops had the Monsanto's gene. Monsanto
says they had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The Krams think otherwise: "We
are honestly disgusted with the
way things are going," Elizabeth
Kram says "Who put the canola
in? It is the farmer. It doesn't
belong to Monsanto or anybody
else and I don't see anybody
else's name on the titles of all the
land we own. It's my husband
and myself. Nobody else. [We're]
thoroughly pissed off. "
For his part, Percy Schmeiser believes Monsanto
hopes to force farmers into accepting genetically
Schmeiser is standing up to Monsanto in court.
"I'm going to fight, and fight and fight," he says.
"Because what I believe what is happening to farmers
is wrong. And I'm fighting this not just for myself,
but for my children and my grandchildren. and for my
"As you move to adopt new technology, whether it was
from the horse to the car, there was a great deal of
controversy, questions being asked, on how to deal
with certain issue," Monsanto's Christensen says.
But the real question is this, can Monsanto or anybody
put a patent on a piece of nature? The answer could
determine who controls the future of world farming.