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Guest Opinion: I'm A Poor, Poor Farmer

I'm A Poor, Poor Farmer: Percy Schmeiser Comes To Land Of The Kiwi
July 21, 2002
By Benjamin Chapman
Commentary from the Food Safety Network

An infamous Canadian's traveling sideshow is visiting the home of the all blacks this week as part of an on-going personal quest to become a martyr for the poor farmers of the world who are pushed around by multinationals.

Percy Schmeiser is coming to town. The story behind the Bruno, Saskatchewan, Canada, farmer is that Monsanto dragged him into court after it was suspected that he had been growing a genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready variety of canola and had not been paying the licensing fees that thousands of other Canadian farmers had willingly paid.

A Canadian federal court ruled in 2001 that he had indeed infringed Monsanto's patent. Schmeiser has stood by his defense that the GE canola was blown into his field by passing seed trucks and then they cross pollinated his crop, resulting in the detectable traits; at least until the appeal when he took a new tack, declaring recently that he had indeed deliberately planted the Roundup Ready canola, but that as a farmer, it was his right to brown bag seed or purchase it from a neighbour.

In his original decision, Justice Andrew MacKay ruled that Mr. Schmeiser "knew or ought to have known" that he had saved and planted seed that was Roundup tolerant and had therefore infringed Monsanto¹s Roundup Ready patented technology.

Justice MacKay pointed to independent tests that showed 1,030 acres of Mr. Schmeiser¹s canola were 95 per cent to 98 per cent tolerant to Roundup herbicide. At such a high level of tolerance, Justice MacKay ruled the seed could only be of commercial quality and could not have arrived in Mr.

Schmeiser¹s field by accident. But like the Greens and the New Zealand Royal Commission, if one doesn't like the results of a judicial decision, go to the court of public opinion which has a much lower standard for admissibility of evidence; in short, anything goes.

Percy has been on a public relations whirlwind since the lawsuit was filed against him in 2000, traveling to Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand all in the name of fighting the biotech companies that are allegedly keeping Percy, as well as the farmers of the world down. Except that this year, some 70 per cent of canola grown in Canada is expected to be derived from GE varieties.

In 2000, Canadian growers of genetically engineered canola reported an average $5.80/acre increase in net return on their transgenic acres compared to conventional acres, largely due to reduced herbicide costs and diesel fuel savings of some 31.2 million litres because of reduced trips up and down the fields to control weeds. Overall, the use of genetically engineered crops in North America continues to increase.

While estimates for this year remain preliminary, it is expected that some 70 per cent of canola, 35 per cent of corn and 30 per cent of soybeans grown in Canada will be from genetically engineered varieties this year. In the U.S., about 75 per cent of soybeans, 70 per cent of cotton and 30 per cent of filed corn will be GE. Part of the reason is a 46 million pound reduction in pesticide use in the U.S. in 2001 because of genetically engineered crops such as cotton, canola, soy and field corn. Such crops helped American farmers reap an additional 14 billion pounds of food and improve farm income by $2.5 billion.

The most recent study from the Washington-based National Center for Food and Agricultural also predicted that if the 32 other biotech crop varieties still under development were planted, they would reduce pesticide use by 117 million pounds per year, bringing total pesticide reduction for all biotech crops to 163 million pounds annually.

Field corn resistant to rootworm, for example, could replace 14 million pounds of insecticides used on this crop each year (the complete report, commissioned with a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, and later expanded with industry funding, was reviewed by nearly 70 plant biotechnology scientists from 20 academic and government institutions and is available at www.ncfap.org).

In short, certain genetically engineered crops, on certain farms, can help farmers produce safe, affordable food while minimizing the environmental impact. But that isn't what Percy Schmeiser or the anti-GE campaign will have you believe. Stompin' Tom Connors, a Canadian music icon (not unlike the Kiwi pair the Finn brothers), sang a song that if it weren't for copyright laws would probably become Mr. Schmeiser's theme.

A line of the lyrics reads: I'm a poor, poor farmer, what am I going to do? Schmeiser is preaching a tale of corporate omnipotence, but only after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. His rants against corporate rule has nothing to do with the safety of genetically engineered foods. It appears that good old Percy, practical as are most farmers, wanted to use a product that worked but didn't want to pay for the technology. When he arrives he'll be telling everyone who wants to listen that the Monsanto's of the world has pushed him around, and that every other farmer is in the same situation as he is.

He is still talking about this in Canada as well; but here, few are listening anymore.

- Benjamin Chapman is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph in Canada. bchapman@uoguelph.ca

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