Percy Schmeiser's passing leaves a legacy of struggle for farmers' rights

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Percy and Louise Schmeiser as witnesses at the Monsanto Tribunal in 2016. Image: Monsanto Tribunal/Flickr

On October 13, three days after the Canadian launch of the movie Percy, starring Christopher Walken, the real-world protagonist of that story, Percy Schmeiser, died of Parkinson's disease aged 89. Three days later, on October 16, we celebrated the United Nations' World Food Day.

A fitting exit for a major story!

Percy was a key player in global food issues because he stood up to a transnational corporation and fought to maintain farmers' rights to save seed. But his story is also inspiring because it shows how the actions of one person can be transformative.

For those who may not know this David and Goliath story, this column provides some detail and chronicles what is still very much an international debate. It is a story that mirrors continuing controversies related to agriculture, agribusiness and corporate control over seed and food. But it is also a story about how individuals can tackle important issues, and become the catalyst for wider support and change.

While this column is a tribute to Percy Schmeiser, it also acknowledges the people and organizations here in Canada and around the world who supported his efforts on the right to save seed.

Schmeiser was a Saskatchewan farmer from Bruno who stood tall in the face of a lawsuit from Monsanto. He also contributed to his community in a number of other ways -- he was a family farmer, a small business operator, a Liberal member of the Saskatchewan legislature, and the mayor of Bruno for many years.

In the late 1990s, Schmeiser was accused of using Monsanto's patented "Roundup Ready" canola seed without paying royalties. Monsanto sued for patent infringement.

Throughout the years and court proceedings, Schmeiser maintained that Monsanto's patented canola seed had swept onto his land with the wind, and that he had not planted it deliberately. Nor did he use the Roundup pesticide to grow the crop.

He also maintained that as a farmer he had the right to save seed grown in his fields and replant that seed from year to year as generations of farmers before him had done. Schmeiser called himself a seed developer and a seed saver, as well as a farmer, but he did not sell seed. He simply saved and developed seed for use on his farm.

Monsanto on the other hand maintained that it held a patent on the genetically engineered seed, and so royalties had to be paid every time it was planted. In other words, you could not save the seed and use it the following year. Monsanto also maintained that royalties had to be paid no matter whether the seed was sown intentionally or not.

Throughout the seven-year legal battle, Schmeiser emphasized that he did not deliberately plant the Roundup Ready canola seed, but that it was volunteer canola (volunteer grain is not deliberately planted but usually blows onto a prairie field from another farm or a passing vehicle, etc.), and that he had the right to save his seed even though it had been contaminated with Monsanto's product.

At the root of this story is not only the corporate control of seed through patents, but also how easily genetically modified seed can contaminate fields of traditional seed crops. Today, Canada's canola crops are difficult to sell outside the country, particularly in Europe, because of concerns over GM-contaminated canola seed.

When Schmeiser lost his case in the Saskatchewan courts, the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the end, Schmeiser lost the case in 2004. The court case was complex and the results have a number of layers.

E. Ann Clark, professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario, explains the intricacies of the case for growers and eaters in "The Implications of the Percy Schmeiser Decision."

As Schmeiser defended himself against Monsanto and its lawsuits, he became the international face for the movement organizing around the right to save seed. Throughout those seven years of litigation and afterwards, activists, consumers and non-profit and farm organizations concerned about the patenting of seed and genetically modified products campaigned alongside him.

In 2007, Louise and Percy Schmeiser received The Right Livelihood Award -- often called the alternative Nobel Prize for "their courage in defending biodiversity and farmers' rights, and challenging the environmental and moral perversity of current interpretations of patent laws."

Over the years there have been many documentaries and even a stage play about Percy's courage in standing up to Monsanto, about genetic engineering and pesticides, and in particular about whether corporations should be allowed to patent GM seed.

Annabel Soutar of the PorteParole Theatre in Montreal wrote and directed the stage docudrama, which was titled SEEDS. The play toured Canada, and featured Eric Peterson of Corner Gas and Street Legal fame in the role of Percy. I attended the performance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in the spring of 2014, and was really impressed with the play's detail and journalistic integrity.

There have been several film productions over the years, but one called David versus Monsanto also includes insight into the level of stress an individual and their family must go through when they challenge a transnational corporation such as Monsanto. It could not have been at all easy to live through this lawsuit, and the degree of intimidation that was applied.

There is also a Canadian documentary titled Genetic Matrix: The Schmeiser Case and The Fight for the Future of Life that provides details about the court case and also helps to explain what is at risk with corporate seed patents and control.

And, most recently, there is Percy, a fictionalized feature-length film.

Schmeiser's lawyer throughout the case was Saskatoon-based Terry Zakreski. He had this to say on the release of the film and the passing of Schmeiser:

"What Walken missed was that Percy was much more jovial than portrayed. Monsanto brought everything it had against Percy -- a battery of lawyers, a private army of investigators, St. Louis scientists and a PR team to work the trial. No matter what, every morning when Percy greeted me, it was with a smile on his face as big as all Saskatchewan. I have not met a man before or since like him, the way he could handle so much pressure so lightly. The quintessential vertical man on a horizontal plane. Check out Percy in the theaters. It's something to see. And Percy (critics notwithstanding) is someone to be."

The fight for the right of farmers to save and develop their own seed and some public skepticism surrounding genetically modified seed and organisms are ongoing, but it is individuals like Percy and others who have helped in creating the groundswell that creates the opportunity for others to learn how important these issues are for the sustainability of our communities. 

One also has to wonder if the court outcomes might have been different if the more recent public revelations about Monsanto's operations, as noted in this earlier column, had been clearer in 2004.

Percy has passed, but many others live on to remind us of what is right ethically no matter the "legalese" handed down through the courts.

There are no heroes, only good people who struggle alongside others through hard-won victories.

And that, in the end, is the real story.

Thanks Percy!

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: Monsanto Tribunal/Flickr

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