In memoriam: Percy Schmeiser, farmer and seed saving crusader
A canola farmer from Canada, Percy became famous for his battle against agrochemical giant Monsanto. His name became synonymous with the legal fight against patent rights and “The Toxic Legacy of GMOs” – the title of a talk he gave at the Gaia Foundation in 2008.
Percy and his wife Louise were born in 1931 into farming families in Saskatchewan. They spent decades maintaining and improving their canola crop, as farmers have done for millennia — selecting the strongest plants, saving their seeds, and replanting them the following season. Then, one August day in 1998, they received a letter from Monsanto lawyers informing Percy that he was being sued for patent violation: the company’s “Roundup Ready” canola, a genetically engineered canola that altered the plant’s genes to make it resistant to Roundup herbicide, had been found in Percy’s fields.
Canadian farmers have a long and strong tradition of seed saving, especially in the western prairies where Schmeiser is from. Canola, the crop Schmeiser grew, is itself a product of farmer seed saving, farmer selection, and publicly funded research. It’s an example of what plant breeding can accomplish without patents. It’s also an example of why co-existence between GM (genetically modified) and non-GM crops is impossible. Today, all of the canola acreage in Western Canada is contaminated with Monsanto’s patented ‘Roundup-Ready’ gene. (GRAIN, Percy Schmeiser found guilty of violating Monsanto patent, but claims moral victory, 24th May 2004)
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 (rape) seeds had blown over from the Schmeisers’ neighbour or from passing trucks. Genes that Monsanto claimed to “own” under Canadian patent law had ended up in the Schmeisers’ seeds, and Monsanto threatened to sue the Schmeisers for ‘infringement of patent’, seeking damages totalling hundres of thousands of dollars. The company offered to withdraw the legal challenge if the Schmeisers signed a contract to buy their seeds from Monsanto in the future and to pay a technology use fee.
Percy and Louise neither gave in nor did they accept this blackmailing attempt. What ensued was an epic David vs. Goliath battle that pit the rights of farmers to save and replant seeds against agribusiness attempts to make it ever-more difficult for farmers to plant anything but their patented varieties. Percy and Louise felt strongly that if you grow a product or seed on your land, you should have the right to reseed it.
The Schmeiser case was one of the first and most prominent cases involving a company claiming to own patents on life. It revealed how the whole food production chain is dominated by a few giant food enterprises, relying on very few genetically engineered crops. This drastically reduces the genetic diversity of staple crops and the autonomy of farmers, especially in developing countries, not to mention the toxic legacy being created by GMO crops.
Percy did not set out to be an anti-biotech activist. Pollen from genetically engineered crops blown onto his farm — and Monsanto’s legal intimidation — sealed his fate as a globally recognized seed and farm justice leader. He came to epitomise the struggle to protect the world’s native or indigenous, farmer-bred, and publicly-funded plant varieties – the foundation of global food security and climate resilience -from obliteration by privately-controlled genetically-engineered crops. (Real Food Media, 21st October 2020).
Percy ultimately lost the court battle, but he became a legend for the anti-GMO movement. The Schmeisers even shifted their agricultural business from canola to wheat, mustard, peas and oats in order to avoid future problems. But soon they found genetically modified Monsanto canola plants on their land again.
In 2007, Percy and Louise Schmeiser received the Right Livelihood Award.
“for their courage in defending biodiversity and farmers’ rights, and challenging the environmental and moral perversity of current interpretations of patent laws” (Right Livelihood Award, 2007).
In 2008, The Gaia Foundation invited the Percy and Louise to stay at Gaia House and organised a round of meetings, interviews and presentations – including “An Evening with Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser – What would GM crops mean for British farmers?” co-hosted with GM Free Cymru, GM Freeze and Friends of the Earth. At that time, GM Freeze – which we co-initiated in 1999 as the Five Year Freeze campaign – had been successful in moving the British public to show that it has no taste for GM crops, but the knock-on effects of GM contamination for farmers were less well understood. Percy and Louise were able to speak from their astonishing experience with Monsanto.
Percy Schmeiser gave the world a wake-up call about the dangers to farmers and biodiversity everywhere from the growing dominance and market aggression of companies engaged in the genetic engineering of crops. He passed away on 13th October 2020. We pay homage to him and to seed keepers everywhere – and will remember Percy with great affection always.
Around the world, small farmers and their allies continue to fight for the right to save and share seeds. Now more than ever, indigenous seed keeping knowledge and practices are critical to our collective response to the climate crisis. For more information about the threat to smallholder farmers and seed custodians in the Global South, please see one of our films or reports (links below); or connect with our UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme.
Seeds of Freedom; Seeds of Sovereignty; and Seeds of Justice – our trilogy of films
Seed Sovereignty – supporting a biodiverse and ecologically sustainable seed system across Britain & Ireland. Because a food revolution starts with seed.
Celebrating African Rural Women: Custodians of Seed, Food & Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Resilience