Seeds of doubt in patent case
Monsanto takes small-time Canadian farmer to court in case that involves biotech ownership rights.
SASKATOON AND BRUNO, SASKATCHEWAN
The little courthouse looking out onto the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon would surely make it to the quarterfinals, at least, of any competition for the least pretentious public building in this prairie province. But for the trial of the federal civil case of multinational Goliath vs. farmer David, just concluded last week, it drew visitors from around the world.Skip to next paragraph
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The lawsuit has raised some of the most fundamental questions in agriculture today: Who really "owns" the life-forms that farmers sow in their fields? And if it's not the farmers themselves, for how long can the seedmakers insist on payment? Will farmers be reduced to being mere renters of germ plasm within an agricultural sector dominated by a few powerful companies?
Percy Schmeiser, of Bruno, Saskatchewan, will soon find out.
The agrichemical giant Monsanto is suing him, alleging that he has grown its genetically modified canola without signing the contract or paying the "technology fee" it requires. He insists that the Roundup Ready canola, designed to be used with Monsanto's popular Roundup pesticide, got onto his property by accident - by windblown seed, or cross-pollination from neighboring fields.
From the company's perspective, the case "is about protecting the patent system we have in Canada, which lets us bring forward new technologies," says Craig Evans, general manager for biotechnology with Monsanto Canada's agricultural division.
To protect its patent rights, Monsanto has developed a "technology use agreement," or TUA, which includes a fee per acre (C$15, or a little over US$10) which farmers pay to grow Roundup Ready canola, in addition to the cost of the seed. Mr. Evans says the company was forced to sue Schmeiser - for nearly $300,000, including punitive damages - because of its "commitment to maintain a level playing field" for the more than 20,000 western Canadian farmers signed onto the program.
Monsanto maintains that 98 percent of its growers are "in compliance" with the terms of the program. But Don Dewar, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Manitoba farmers' federation, says, "Our producers have been complaining about the TUA since the beginning," One particular sticking point: The TUA prohibits farmers from saving seed from one year to the next - thus disrupting a tradition as old as farming itself.
Outside observers see the TUA as a way for Monsanto to continue to squeeze profit from a pesticide with an expiring patent. By genetically engineering seed that can withstand Roundup, and licensing companies to produce this so-called Roundup Ready seed, Monsanto ensured a market for Roundup, as a single pesticide that can be used against weeds while leaving the canola itself intact. The technology fee assures the company continuing profits.
Monsanto polices the TUA through audits of farmers' fields and a "tip line" for farmers to use to report suspected cheaters.
Evans discussed the audits in terms of fairness to all growers. "We had calls from the Bruno area that an unfair advantage was accruing to Mr. Schmeiser," he told the Monitor.