Monsanto's viable corporate ownership strategy (6/6/2004)

"This will come as shocking news to indigenous farmers in Mexico, whose maize fields have been contaminated with DNA from genetically modified plants, and to farmers everywhere who are fighting to prevent genetically modified organisms from trespassing in their fields."

Schnews - weekly newsletter
Friday 28th May 2004 | Issue 455

"Under this ruling spreading GM pollution appears to be recognized as a viable corporate ownership strategy" Pat Mooney ETC Group

Imagine you're a gardener who likes to keep things neat and tidy, while you’re next door neighbour’s idea of paradise is a bit more on the wild side. Their weed seeds drift across the fence and plant themselves in your soil and start to germinate. You lose the plot, and threaten to call the Council to get them to issue an anti social gardening behaviour order. But before you know it, the neighbours take you to court for stealing their seed! Ridiculous? But that’s just what’s happened in Canada.

Last Friday the Canadian Supreme Court made a final ruling on a seven year legal battle between the worlds biggest baddest biotech firm, Monsanto, and Percy Schmeiser a Canadian farmer. The court ruled that Percy had infringed Monsanto's patent rights by growing genetically modified Round-up Ready Canola (oil seed rape) on his land. Forget the fact that Percy didn't plant any of Monsanto’s seeds. That it was Percy’s seeds that got contaminated by GM canola and that he didn’t even know that his crop was contaminated! Forget all that, Percy was infringing Monsanto's "intellectual property rights"!

This strange twist of the law which persecutes people for having their own property polluted goes back to a Canadian Federal law passed in 1991 which ruled that patents have precedence over and above a farmer’s rights. The ruling means that if a farmer has their crops contaminated with GM seeds then they could be potentially liable to pay Monsanto for "benefiting" from their technology. Terry Boehm, Vice-President of the Canadian National Farmers Union said “It moves us further along the path where corporations will control seed and farmers will lose the right to save seed.”

It wasn't all good news for Monsanto. The Supreme Court overturned an earlier court ruling that said Percy should pay the profits of his 1998 crop – about $20,000 Canadian dollars, because Percy didn’t knowingly grow GM Canola. Also he doesn’t have to pay one cent of court costs to Monsanto as he did not profit from using Monsanto’s technology. Percy believes he won the moral victory and that Monsanto will “have a hard time in pursuing patent infringement against other farmers. They are now going to have to prove that a farmer profited from having RR canola in their field. The Court noted that my profits were the same whether I had conventional canola or RR canola, so I find it hard to see how Monsanto can say in any future case that the farmer made more money because of their product. This decision may have removed the "teeth" from their patent. I also believe that Monsanto will face huge liability issues down the road. The Court determined that they have ownership to the plant and that I infringed by having it in my field. With ownership comes responsibility and I assume more lawsuits will be filed against them for the contamination of farmer's fields." But Monsanto is a splice and dice bully who like to reap and sow their wild oats against farmers, and they may just decide to take on any that speak out against them. Percy still has to pay his own legal fees and only managed to carry on fighting thanks to supporters donations and remortgaging his home; many farmers simply haven't got the time or money to fight a court case.

Percy has also lost a lifetimes work. For the past 50 years, he had been saving seeds from his best crops, something that farmers have been doing for millennia to produce a diverse range of high yielding crops suitable to local conditions. Now his work has been contaminated with GM. And if you have to buy some new seed, there is a high chance that you’ll buy seed from Monsanto who after years of aggressively buying up seed companies are now the world's second biggest seed company!

CHANGELING Canola pollen can travel up to 26 km a year so this sort of genetic contamination is spreading. In Canada Monsanto now have their own "police force", many of them ex-Royal Canadian Mounted Police who walk onto a farmers land and take away some seeds of plants for testing to make sure that the farmer isn’t using Monsanto’s seeds. If a farmer catches them they just say "if you take us to court, we will drag you through the court system and you won’t have a farm left." They also send threatening letters to anyone they think might have had their crops contaminated by Monsanto’s crops, threatening to sue for $100,000-$150,000 compensation. The letters also stated that the farmers could also be sued for revealing the threats to anyone else!

This pleasant company are now turning its attention to weaker opponents, taking out newspaper ads in Mexico warning peasants that if they are found using GM seed illegally, they risk fines and even prison! Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Mexico says "This will come as shocking news to indigenous farmers in Mexico, whose maize fields have been contaminated with DNA from genetically modified plants, and to farmers everywhere who are fighting to prevent genetically modified organisms from trespassing in their fields."

One of the biotech companies long term strategies is that eventually GM contamination will be so widespread that eventually the public will have to accept GM is here to stay. The Canadian court ruling - ironically the day before International Biodiversity Day - says that Monsanto now have the rights over anything that its genes get into. Despite not managing to get money out of anyone whose crops are contaminated Monsanto welcomed the judgement and claim that the world needs GM crops: "Patent protection encourages innovations that will lead to the next generation of value-added products for Canadian farmers." Showing that obviously farmers can’t be trusted with producing seeds and crops and we’ve all got to leave it to the experts to produce "value-added products", but just who is gaining the value? Monsanto pretty much admitted what it is really interested in by saying. "This ruling maintains Canada as an attractive investment opportunity."

SchNEWS reckons it's up to people everywhere to make sure through direct action and boycotts GM doesn't become an 'attractive investment opportunity' in their neck of the woods.

* To read Percy’s full statement www.percyschmeiser.com

* To contact the excellent ETC www.etcgroup.org

* Seedy Sundays take the old idea of gardeners swapping seeds, an idea that has spread through Canada and the US and is slowly gaining ground in the UK. www.seedysunday.org

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