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Schmeiser, Nelson take their GMO experiences to Texas

(Oct. 19, 2001 – CropChoice news) – In person and on video tape, Percy Schmeiser and Rodney Nelson shared their messages about lawsuits and genetically engineered crops with an audience of 200 people at the University of Texas at Austin last week. The crowd gave a standing ovation to both farmers after hearing about how their families have been defending themselves in separate court battles against Monsanto. The St. Louis-based chemical and biotechnology company has sued them over what it regards as patent infringement. In adherence to its policy of CropChoice avoidance, Monsanto representatives would comment on no aspect of this story.

Fred Walters, editor and publisher of the national agriculture magazine Acres U.S.A., a self-described "voice for eco-agriculture," introduced the speakers and provided a background and context for the issues to be discussed.

Activist, author and former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower spoke about the growing influence of agribusiness in the context of expanding corporate power in the United States and throughout the world.

Hightower urged the crowd to remember the exhortation of a 19th century woman activist – "raise less corn and more hell" – whenever they feel daunted by Monsanto lawsuits against dozens of farmers and investigations of thousands more. "Monsanto is not going to stop until we stop it," he said.

He praised the bravery of Schmeiser (www.percyschmeiser.com), Nelson (www.nelsonfarm.net) and their families and called for a switch to sustainable farming practices. "Farmers are using 8 billion pounds of pesticides per year, which is 20 pounds for each man, woman and child," he said.

(You can find a somewhat lengthy history of Monsanto by Michael Manville at www.freezerbox.com/archive/2001/04/biotech and Brian Tokar's Monsanto: A profile of corporate arrogance

After Hightower had laid the groundwork, Percy Schmeiser took to the podium. The grower of canola, oats and wheat is appealing a Federal Court of Canada ruling that he infringed the patent on the canola that Monsanto had engineered to resist its herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).

Schmeiser claims that pollen from the so-called Roundup Ready canola cross-pollinated with his conventional varieties.

University of Manitoba cropping specialist Martin Entz spoke to CropChoice in July about the ease with which the oilseed plant cross-pollinates. He has been involved with the work on containing the transformation of the Roundup-resistant variety from a crop into a nuisance weed, which could worsen in the future because of its long soil life. During the registration process for the transgenic canola, Monsanto never acknowledged the tendency for the plant to spread or issued precautions that farmers should take, he said. To him this symbolizes the loss of control for farmers when it comes to genetic engineering; to read more about this and about the intention of Monsanto to introduce herbicide-resistant wheat over the objections of farmers and foreign markets go to Farmers fight introduction of Roundup Ready wheat in Canada.

Since Roundup Ready and other biotech crops came on the market, Monsanto has investigated and sent lawyers after hundreds of U.S. and Canadian farmers. It alleges violations of its technology rights. Almost all farmers the company has accused have chosen to settle out of court, making five and six figure payments to Monsanto and signing settlements that prohibit their talking about the experience.

These contracts and settlements represent, Schmeiser said, "a total muzzling of farmers’ freedom of speech and rights."

He spoke to the Austin crowd at length about the case, what he calls the "seed police" that Monsanto sends to investigate farmers, and the destruction of farm communities to which these lawsuits and patents on life are contributing.

The issue has three components, he said:

  • property rights versus patent law,
  • health and safety, and
  • damage to the environment.

Schmeiser then listed some specific problems with the technology:

  • poor quality,
  • lower yields,
  • loss of markets and lower prices for GMO products,
  • loss of seed selection as the biotech industry selects the better varieties for genetic modification and subsequent patenting,
  • lack of food security,
  • and loss of indigenous varieties (see Mexican government announces transgenic contamination found in corn) as unwanted genes spread over the countryside.

Thanks to ever increasing cultivation of transgenic crops, cross-pollination with the help of the wind, the birds, the bees, other insects, and even people, Schmeiser said, "There is no such thing as pure canola in Canada or in the United States. There’s no pure soybean seed. Corn is also contaminated. All organics are contaminated and this is a tremendous economic loss to organic and conventional farmers."

"I have been asked many times," he told the crowd, "‘Are you totally against GMOs?’ It is difficult to answer. All of us want to be on the leading edge of new technology, but with GMOs…at what price? It’s wrong when life-giving form destroys the property of others. If it is not safe to eat, if it is not safe for the environment, then I say it is wrong. Until there is adequate testing, I say no to GMOs." (Editor’s note: few independent, third-party, peer-reviewed tests have been carried out on the health and safety of these crops to humans and the environment.)

Rodney Nelson couldn’t attend the conference, so he sent a taped address. He and his family grow soybeans, wheat and sugar beets on about 8,000 acres in North Dakota. They twice planted Monsanto Roundup Ready soybeans and were twice dissatisfied with them because of poor yields and the need to apply more Roundup, contrary to the promises of the company.

In 2000, Monsanto accused the Nelsons of saving and replanting the soybean seed, an infringement of the patent. The fact that the North Dakota State Seed Arbitration Board found no evidence of this failed to dissuade Monsanto from pressing on with its lawsuit. In addition, despite the fact that the lawsuit had not even gone to trial and no guilt had been established, Monsanto sent hundreds of letters to farm suppliers in North Dakota and Minnesota with instructions to avoid selling any Monsanto products to the family.

Both Nelson and Schmeiser said that the U.S. and Canadian governments are helping the biotechnology industry research these crops and then allowing companies to patent them.

Nelson talked about his written request for help from Attorney General John Ashcroft in the family’s case. The respsonse to his plea read: "It’s not our policy to get involved in private litigation matters."

It was quite inconsistent then, Nelson said, for Ashcroft to ask the Supreme Court, in the case of Pioneer Hi-Bred International v. J.E.M. Ag Supply, for protection of plant patents. That the nation’s chief law enforcement agent wants to "uphold plant patents to protect corporations, yet refused to help farmers…felt like a cold slap in the face," Nelson said. "It makes a person wonder if all government is up for sale to the highest bidder."

For more information visit: Monsanto sues Nelson farm