15/10/2020 2007 Laureate Percy Schmeiser, who stood up against Monsanto, passes away at 89

2007 Laureate Percy Schmeiser, who stood up against Monsanto, passes away at 89

15/10/2020

Louise and Percy Schmeiser in 2010.

The Right Livelihood Foundation mourns the loss of 2007 Laureate Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who stood up against the US agribusiness giant Monsanto’s abusive marketing practices. He passed away on Tuesday, October 13, at the age of 89, according to local media reports.

“Percy Schmeiser was a modest man who worked tirelessly for the well-being of his community,” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation. “When he and his wife Louise found themselves in a David and Goliath battle against one of the world’s most powerful companies, they found the strength to keep fighting in the face of intimidation and potential financial ruin. Percy Schmeiser will be remembered by farmers around the world for standing up against a bully and shining a spotlight on the dangers of genetically engineered crops.”

Percy Schmeiser, together with his wife Louise, gave the world a wake-up call about the dangers faced by farmers and the threats to biodiversity due to the growing dominance and market aggression of companies engaged in the genetic engineering of crops.

Born into a farming family in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, Schmeiser emerged as a leading farm figure who was deeply engaged in his local community. He served as a local lawmaker and mayor for many years, being appointed to numerous provincial commissions and municipal boards.

In 1998, the Schmeisers received a letter from Monsanto claiming that they had used Monsanto seeds without a license when planting their 1997 crop. However, the Schmeisers had never bought Monsanto seed nor intended to have it on their land. It turned out that some Monsanto ‘Round-up Ready’ genetically modified canola seeds had blown over from neighbouring farms or from passing trucks. Thus, genes that Monsanto claimed to “own” under Canadian patent law had ended up in the Schmeisers’ seeds. 

Monsanto threatened to sue the Schmeisers for “infringement of patent,” seeking damages totalling CAD 400,000. At the same time, Monsanto offered to withdraw the legal challenge if the Schmeisers signed a contract to buy their seeds from the company in the future and pay the technology use fee.

However, the Schmeisers neither gave in nor did they accept this blackmailing attempt. They contested Monsanto’s claim, and the case went all the way up to the Canadian Supreme Court. The top court ruled in favour of Monsanto in their claim to own the genetic material. Thus, the Schmeisers lost their breeding research, which they had built up for decades, and the varieties that they had painstakingly adapted to their local environment for years through cross-pollination because they now contained the “Monsanto-owned” gene.

However, the court also concluded that the Schmeisers should not have to pay anything to Monsanto because they had not in any way benefited from having the seeds on their property.

“At times we felt that we were against the world and that we could not defend our rights,” the Schmeisers said in their acceptance speech of the 2007 Right Livelihood Award. “It is an experience that we would not wish upon anyone, but with the encouragement of people from around the world, we found the strength and courage to persevere.”

The Schmeisers’ case was one of the first and most prominent cases involving a company claiming to own patents on life. It revealed how traditional seed economics and treatment are currently giving way to a dependency on only a few big multinational enterprises. In the end, the whole food production chain could be dominated by a few giant food enterprises, relying on very few genetically engineered crops. This would drastically reduce the genetic diversity of staple crops and the economic autonomy of farmers, especially in developing countries.

The Schmeisers jointly received the Right Livelihood Award in 2007 “for their courage in defending biodiversity and farmers’ rights, and challenging the environmental and moral perversity of current interpretations of patent laws.”

Schmeiser’s life story is now also the subject of a recently-released feature film entitled Percy.