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Grain Farmer Claims Moral Victory in Seed Battle Against Monsanto

by Matt Hartley

Percy Schmeiser's decade-long legal odyssey has finally come to an end - and he's got a cheque for $660 to prove it.

The 77-year-old Saskatchewan farmer and his wife, Louise, became international folk heroes for their legal struggle with agribusiness giant Monsanto Canada Inc., after the company sued them for violating its patent on genetically engineered canola seeds in 1997.

Although the Schmeisers eventually wound up losing their court battle with the St. Louis-based company in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2004, the couple have now earned a moral victory that they hope will encourage others to carry on their cause.

Yesterday, Monsanto agreed to pay the Schmeisers $660 to settle a small-claims court case they brought against the company for costs associated with removing the patented Roundup Ready canola from their field in 2005.

"After 10 years, finally justice has been served," Mr. Schmeiser said in an interview last night. "I really feel that if a farmer is now contaminated, he has a right to go after Monsanto for liability and to clean up the contamination. By settling out of court, Monsanto now realizes the seriousness of the liability issue."

Monsanto agreed to pay the costs associated with removing the canola back in 2005. However, the Schmeisers refused the offer because the company insisted the couple sign a release stating they would never talk about the terms of the agreement.

"That release form they sent us was a gag order," Mr. Schmeiser said. "We could never talk to anyone for the rest of our lives about what the terms of the settlement were. There was no way we were going to give up our freedom of speech to a corporation."

Several other Western Canadian farmers have agreed to sign Monsanto's standard release form, including 16 in 2007, according to a statement issued by the firm yesterday. The Schmeisers' deal does not stop them from talking about the terms of the settlement.

"Although we are pleased Mr. Schmeiser finally approached us and agreed to settlement terms, it is frustrating that he essentially accepted the same offer we put before him in 2005," Monsanto public affairs director Trish Jordan said. "This entire matter could have been resolved more than 2½ years ago and Mr. Schmeiser would have saved himself some legal costs."

The Schmeisers became international causes célèbres because of the David and Goliath nature of the case. Mr. Schmeiser has been invited to speak at universities and parliaments all over the world, and appearance fees have helped to pay for much of the couple's court costs. In December, they were awarded the Right Livelihood Award - unofficially considered to be the alternative Nobel Prize.

The Schmeisers' saga began more than 10 years ago, when Monsanto sued them after plants grown from genetically modified canola seeds were found on the couple's farm near Bruno, Sask., about 90 kilometres east of Saskatoon.

The company said the Schmeisers violated its patent on the seeds, which had been genetically modified to resist Monsanto-brand herbicide, and that the couple knowingly planted them without paying the technology fees. Monsanto's claim sought damages totalling $400,000.

But the Schmeisers denied using the Monsanto seeds, arguing that the seeds blew onto their property from a nearby road or neighbouring farms.

In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favour of Monsanto, stating that plant genes and modified cells can be patented. Although the Schmeisers lost the case, the court ruled they did not have to pay damages.

The following year, more of the genetically modified canola appeared on the Schmeisers' farm. They pulled it out themselves and sent Monsanto a bill for $660.

Mr. Schmeiser doesn't grow canola on his farm any more, only wheat and oats, and he rents out most of the land to other farmers. Although he said he's looking forward to spending more time with his family, he hopes the fight to bring awareness to the issues surrounding genetically modified foods will continue.

"This is a great victory for farmers all over the world," he said. "Now they have at least an opportunity to have some recourse on a corporation when they are contaminated."

© 2008 The Globe and Mail

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