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Percy Schmeiser is fighting what may be the strangest battle in the history of a

by CBC Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2001 at 9:31 PM

"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."

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 money.

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 investigations, "audits."

"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 permission."

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 for planting.

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 DNA 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 ,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 engineered products.

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 farmer's friends."

"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.

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