By Rick Weiss and Justin Gillis Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page A08
Sometimes, Goliath wins.
Capping a seven-year, globally watched legal battle between biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. and a scrappy 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled yesterday that Percy Schmeiser violated Monsanto's patent by growing the company's high-tech canola and saving the valuable seeds produced by those plants.
The landmark 5 to 4 decision marks the first time a high court in any country has ruled on how extensively a company can control a farmer's use of its gene-altered seeds and plants. By affirming broad proprietary rights for Monsanto in Canada -- a country that allows only limited patents on life forms and is considered relatively friendly to farmers' rights -- the court set both national and global precedents that strengthen the hand of agricultural biotechnology corporations.
Carl Casale, Monsanto's executive vice president, hailed the ruling as a seminal declaration that will give agricultural companies a clear legal framework in Canada.
"It's a great day," Casale said from Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis. "Other companies beyond Monsanto were just told today that Canada continues to be a very good place to invest for the benefit of farmers."
But opponents of genetically engineered food and other activists, for whom Schmeiser has grown to be a folk hero, vowed to continue their battle against what they claim is an emerging corporate monopoly over the world's seed and food supply. Among other approaches, they said they would lobby Canada's Parliament to change the country's patent law.
"The biotech industry should recognize that today's victory will be short-lived," said Nadege Adam of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy group that had supported Schmeiser. "They need to know that the backlash will come. It will continue and get stronger."
The ruling was the most definitive judgment to date in a series of legal controversies over agricultural technology playing out in the world's courts and legislatures.
Monsanto had sued Schmeiser after learning that much of the farmer's land was sown with the company's patented Roundup Ready canola, although he had never purchased the seed from the company or signed a required grower agreement. The variety has a gene that makes the plants resistant to Monsanto's Roundup weed killer, allowing farmers to spray the herbicide freely without worrying about harming their crop.
Farmers who purchase the seeds are not allowed to collect and replant seeds from the plants they grow -- even though seed saving is a long-standing tradition among canola farmers. Monsanto has argued that seed saving would prevent the company from recovering its research and development costs, since first-time buyers would never have to purchase the expensive seeds again.