Skip to main content

Monsanto did not know what it was getting into when it tried to teach Percy Schmeiser a lesson.

Two years after losing a patent dispute with the biotechnology giant, the 71-year-old grain farmer from Bruno, Sask., has taken his story -- and his message about farmers' rights -- from Brazil to Bangladesh, from Australia to Austria.

He has at least as many international gigs as boy band 'N Sync this year, yet the jet lag is not slowing him down.

In the fall, he visited South Africa. In March, he was in Thailand. This week he kicks off a tour that will take him through Europe. Then he's off to Seattle, followed by a spin through South America.

"It has been pretty hectic," he said recently.

Farmers groups, environmentalists and United Nations policymakers all want to hear Mr. Schmeiser's tale of being taken to court over the kind of canola found growing in his fields four years ago.

Some will pay his air fare and expenses to have him tell it in person (he doesn't charge speaking fees.)

And the next time this grandfather of 14 will be back home in Saskatchewan is mid-May, when a Saskatoon judge is to hear his appeal of the March, 2000, ruling that made him an international folk hero.

"Monsanto couldn't have picked a worse person to get into a fight with," said Pat Mooney, the executive director of the Winnipeg-based technology watchdog group ETC, who has seen Mr. Schmeiser speak at international forums.

"He's articulate and emotional, and he always creates a stir when he tells his story."

Born and raised in Bruno, a farming community 90 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, Mr. Schmeiser has grown canola, wheat and legumes on 1,400 acres of land for the last 47 years.

In the last two years, it has become increasingly difficult for him to maintain his packed travel itinerary and his grain farm. This year, he will rent out most of his land to neighbours and cultivate just 300 acres himself with the help of family.

In 1998, Monsanto informed him he was infringing on their patent for a herbicide-resistant strain of canola, called Roundup Ready, because they had found it growing in his fields. He had not paid the necessary fees to cultivate it.

Mr. Schmeiser argued that the seed had blown into his field or had been dumped there by accident, and that made Monsanto's patent invalid. Monsanto wanted to settle out of court, but Mr. Schmeiser refused.

A federal court judge ruled in March, 2000, that it was unlikely the patented canola ended up growing in Mr. Schmeiser's fields by accident and that he must have knowingly harvested the patented strain without informing Monsanto. "What the judgment said was it doesn't matter how Monsanto seeds get into your fields; it's their property. All the farmers' rights go out the window," Mr. Schmeiser said.

The case cost Mr. Schmeiser and his wife Louise $200,000 in legal fees. To pay, they mortgaged their land and gutted their retirement savings. But the judge also awarded costs to Monsanto, which this fall asked for nearly $1-million.

"Sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night and ask ourselves, 'What did we get ourselves into? We could lose everything we worked our whole lives for,' " Mr. Schmeiser said.

But rather than sit at home and fret, Mr. Schmeiser has turned himself into a global poster boy for the rights of small farmers.

Through his Web site ( ), which touts his story as "the classic David vs Goliath struggle," he has raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for next month's appeal.

The site sports a photograph of him holding the Mahatma Gandhi award, presented to him in Delhi in 2000 for his work promoting non-violent improvement of humanity.

Meanwhile, Monsanto Canada is resigned to losing the public-relations battle, as long as it wins in court.

"We knew going into this that this was a no-win situation for us in the public's eye. It has all the classic things that people can take a spin on," said Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada spokeswoman. "The bottom line is that this case for us is about protecting intellectual property. There are 30,000 farmers who use this technology in Canada and pay to use it."

Ms. Jordan said the company is not at all worried about Mr. Schmeiser's appeal and she noted he has not paid "one cent" of the costs owed to Monsanto.

But high-profile lawsuits against Monsanto are not likely to end with Mr. Schmeiser's appeal.

Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate launched a class-action suit against Monsanto and Aventis claiming that pollen drift and contamination from their genetically modified strains of canola have made it impossible for Saskatchewan farmers to grow certifiably organic canola.

Mr. Schmeiser has also registered a lawsuit against Monsanto for damages related to alleged contamination of his fields by Roundup Ready canola, a suit he hasn't yet had time to pursue.

"My wife said we won't live long enough to see the end of it," he said.