A March 30 article about a Monsanto Co. lawsuit against a Canadian canola farmer failed to fully report the judge's conclusions in deciding the case. Judge W. Andrew MacKay wrote that the amount of Roundup Ready canola in the farmer's fields likely could not be explained by cross-pollination and the spread of seed from nearby fields and passing trucks, as argued in the farmer's defense. (Published 4/3/01)
A judge yesterday ordered a Canadian farmer to pay the biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. thousands of dollars because the company's genetically engineered canola plants were found growing on his field, apparently after pollen from modified plants had blown onto his property from nearby farms.
The closely watched case was a major victory for companies that produce genetically modified crops and have been aggressively enforcing agreements that require farmers to pay yearly fees for using their technology.
But the decision in a federal court in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was a significant setback for farmers who fear they will be held liable if pollen from neighboring farms blows onto their fields, transmitting patented genes to their crops without their knowledge or consent. Dozens of similar lawsuits have been filed against farmers around the United States, but the Canadian case is the first to go to trial.
The case also highlights growing tension between farmers and large agricultural biotechnology companies, whose high-tech crops are transforming the traditional ways growers tend their fields.
"I've been using my own seed for years, and now farmers like me are being told we can't do that anymore if our neighbors are growing [genetically modified] crops that blow in," said Percy Schmeiser, 70, the farmer from Saskatchewan who was sued by Monsanto. "Basically, the right to use our own seed has been taken away."
Genetically engineered corn, soybeans, cotton and canola have become widely used in the United States, and recent evidence suggests that their pollen can spread to conventional crops. That means any farmer whose neighbors grow engineered varieties could find himself in the same situation as Schmeiser -- especially farmers of easily windblown canola and corn.
A Monsanto spokeswoman in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said yesterday that the decision will help protect the intellectual property rights of the company and of thousands of farmers who pay for its technology.
"This is a clear win for Monsanto, and this is very good news for us," said Trish Jordan, manager of public and industry affairs for Monsanto Canada. "What the judge found was that Mr. Schmeiser had infringed on our patent, and awarded us damages."
In his ruling, federal Judge W. Andrew MacKay concluded that a farmer does not have the right to grow crops with a patented and genetically modified gene unless he has an agreement with the company that owns the patent. MacKay also ruled that it didn't matter whether the farmer took advantage of the patented gene. In this case, Schmeiser did not.
The Monsanto canola contains a gene that protects the crop from the herbicide Roundup. With Roundup Ready canola, farmers can spray the herbicide more widely and control weeds more easily.
Seed companies representing Monsanto, and similar biotechnology companies, sell their modified genes to farmers under an agreement that they use them for only one season. Traditionally, farmers have stored their best seeds and replanted them.
Monsanto communications director Lori Fisher said yesterday that seed companies that license Monsanto technology will help farmers remove unwanted genetically modified plants in their fields. She called the Schmeiser case unusual and said that farmers support the company's effort to protect its patent.
But a spokeswoman with the National Farmers Union, which represents 300,000 small farmers and ranchers in the United States, said the organization has been following the Schmeiser case with apprehension.
"We're extremely concerned by what liabilities may unfold for the farmer, particularly with cross-pollination of genetically modified plants," she said.
Margaret Mellon, director of the agriculture and biotechnology program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the ruling "stunning.
"This means that people who are in the neighborhood of genetically modified crops will have to pay royalties to the companies for products they never purchased and got no benefits from," she said.
The decision prohibits Schmeiser from using his seed again and requires him to pay Monsanto about $10,000 for its user fees and up to $75,000 in profits from his 1998 crop. MacKay told the farmer and company that he would impose a financial settlement if they couldn't work one out.
Schmeiser is a fifth-generation farmer in Bruno, Saskatchewan. In his trial last summer, he acknowledged he was aware that Roundup Ready canola had gotten into his crops in 1997. He said he used seeds from that crop for his next year's planting -- as he traditionally did -- but with no intention of taking advantage of the genetically modified plants' engineered trait.
Representatives of Monsanto Canada received reports from nearby farmers in 1998 that they believed Schmeiser was using Roundup Ready canola without an agreement. Private investigators collected samples from Schmeiser's fields and confirmed the presence of the modified canola.
They reported that the crop was made up almost entirely of genetically modified plants. Schmeiser denied that, and third-party tests found the presence of modified canola to be significantly less. He became something of a hero in farmer and anti-biotech circles for his fight against the company.