Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Percy Schmeiser

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Percy Schmeiser and his wife in person on his European tour. He is a soft-spoken person with a simple and direct personality; he is about 77 years old, a life-long farmer, with several kids all working in agro-related areas. This year, due to age and time constraints, he is giving up farming. If you have seen any documentaries on Monsanto it is nearly certain that you have seen some video snippets of Percy Schmeiser. He is the Canadian farmer -- his grandma was from Austria hence his interesting name -- that was sued for years by Monsanto after Monsanto had found patented genetically modified (GM) crop on his field that grew from seeds that the wind had blown in. In short, his fields got contaminated and polluted by foreign Monsanto GM crop and then he got sued for not paying patent licenses to Monsanto. Percy took up the fight and took the topic to the Canadian Supreme Court. There were 3 law suits in total Percy told me over a glass of white wine in a chat. He further explained that even though it is illegal in Canada to patent plants, it is legal to patent genes and the court ruled that if the genes are in plants then the right to the whole plant goes to the gene patent holder. Through this backdoor it became possible to practically patent plants in Canada against their legislation. If I understood him correctly the final outcome of the lawsuits were that it was declared that he infringed on the rights of Monsanto but he was freed from any punitive actions and any punitive payments. This backdoor for patenting plant life was also recognized by the Canadian courts that there are efforts underway to create new legislation to close it, but it will take years before it becomes reality.

Other countries, like the EU and in particular Austria, have learned a lesson from this legal case and this epic struggle of a single farmer against a giant corporation that controls about 80 percent of all the seeds on all the farmlands of all of North America. E.g. Austria has put a rule in place in 2005 prohibiting law suits where patented seeds are accidentally distributed onto fields such that the patent owner cannot request licenses for such seed contamination.

To opposite, the farmer suffering the contamination cannot defend himself or sue anyone. Imagine you are an organic farmer and through wind GM crop seeds are polluting your fields. Suddenly you are no longer an organic farmer and lose your license and farm. Who is to blame? The GM seed manufacturer, i.e. Monsanto, clearly says we are not liable for that, we just hold the patent on the seed. Can't sue the wind. The person responsible is the neighbor planting GM crop, but since no farmer can put an air-tight glass dome over his fields and no truck carrying crop can be wrapped in a giant condom, such gen pollution is virtually certain to happen. The neighboring farmer does not have to resources to prevent it.

Since this GM pollution into organic farms is happening already, regulatory bodies already had to tweak the definition of "organic". According to EU laws, organic food allows up to 0.9% of GM crop. In short, if organic food contains 0.9% GM food it will still receive the "organic" or "bio" label. I am afraid this is just the beginning, as GM pollution increases who prevents that this bar is silently raised from 0.9% to 2 or 3%? In any case, GM producers literally have taken away from us the right to eat 100%-GM-free food, it cannot be found anymore in regular supermarkets, especially if you not only take into account the GM pollution on the fields but also the ingredients like monoglyceride, diglyceride, lecithine, glutamat, E620 – ER625, in prepared food that do not require labeling. Furthermore vitamins B, C and E are frequently manufactured through GM microorganisms.

Since GM pollution is certain to happen and has happened already, and since it is irreversible we should be extra careful. Monsanto knows how to put a new gene into a plant, but they do not know how to take the plant out of circulation. There is no fail-safe behavior. You find a pesticide to be toxic, you can outlaw it and no longer use it. You find a GM crop to be harmful, you can no longer stop it. It will propagate itself, spread itself, mutate itself, ... it is a plant and it has a life of its own.

With Percy Schmeiser in town there is another event tonight highlighting his presence. The 65-minute documentary film "David versus Monsanto" will be screened publicly. It was produced 2009 by a German team. The film is also available here as well as a talk he did at UC Berkeley. Here is a short trailer.

I realized how annoying he must have become for the public relations campaigns of Monsanto when I found a long page dedicated to Percy Schmeiser on the Monsanto public web site. Have a look at this: http://www.monsanto.com/.../percy_schmeiser. The same is on their international sites like the Spanish one.

Monsanto regularly wins prizes: Monsanto won the 2009 Award for Worst Corporate Climate Lobbyist (by Angry Mermaid), Monsanto won the Least Ethical Company In The World Award (by Covalence, out of 581), ... (in Spanish).

Watch the film on this oh so ethical corporation Monsanto and the next time you are in the supermarket reach for the organic product (it is at least 99.1% GM-free according to EU regulation).

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