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Mother Nature Doesn't Obey Patent Law

Last summer I bought a fancy daylily, 'When my Sweetheart Returns'. The tag said the plant's patented, and warned that unlicensed propagation is prohibited, but I didn't think till now what that means.

Daylilies need dividing every few years, to keep them vigorous. I'm supposed to throw away the part I dig up? Ridiculous. A gardener respects life, respects its innate drive to grow, propagate, evolve. Passing along beloved plants is one way we show that respect, and an essential part of gardening.

Percy Schmeiser, of Bruno, Saskatchewan, feels similarly about replanting his own canola seed. Forty years he saved seed from his own harvest, selecting for traits he wanted, creating a plant that grows and produces well in his conditions.

In 1998 Monsanto had his harvest seized, claiming patent infringement: his plants contained DNA from their Roundup Ready canola. Percy Schmeiser never bought seed from Monsanto, or brought their seed in from any source. He doesn't even like their plant. (Tests show it yields poorly in comparison to other varieties, despite Monsanto's claims.) He refused to pay the fee they demand for growing their plants, and they took him to court.

Both the pollen and the seed of canola travel well on the wind.

In Canadian Federal Court on March 29, 2001, Justice Andrew McKay agreed with Monsanto that it doesn't matter how the genetic material got into Schmeiser's plants, Monsanto owns it -- and ordered Schmeiser to pay $19,000 in damages plus $153,000 to cover Monsanto's court costs. An appeals court decided against him too. On January 20, 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear the case.

The Schmeiser family has already spent approximately $200,000 on their own costs of pursuing the case. They have used up their retirement savings, and if they lose the decision, expect the farm to go bankrupt. Gone too is a lifetime's work of breeding their own plants, since they were confiscated. But Percy Schmeiser's fighting for the principle behind that work. "A farmer should always have the right to be able to use their own seed, " says Schmeiser.

On January 24, Percy Schmeiser is scheduled to speak in Barre, Massachusetts, at the Winter Conference of the state chapter of NOFA (the Northeast Organic Farming Association). For more information on the conference and its 45 other events, see www.nofamass.org/conferences or contact Kate Harris at (413) 586-5516.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 16 January 2004

Thank you to John Schmeiser for the photo of Percy in his field.

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For more information
  • Monsanto vs Percy Schmeiser
    • A very informative site, thoroughly examining the many issues involved and documenting Percy Schmeiser's case, and related ones with Monsanto and with others' patenting of living material.
    • "A farmer should always have the right to be able to use their own seed, " this quote is taken from an audio interview with Schmeiser from The Conflict on this site. It appears with the credit "Audio courtesy of Andrew Wood, producer of a recent interview of Percy Schmeiser that was conducted in England."
  • Monsanto Still Suing Neslsons, other Growers — dirty tricks in US suits.
  • Genetic Engineering of Plants: Agricultural Research Opportunities and Policy Concerns — recounts some history of the consideration of the issues in patenting genetic material. This 1984 publication of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources is available in its entirety, free, online. BANR) is under the auspices of the Division on Earth and Life Studies (DELS) - one of six major divisions within the National Research Council. The NRC was established by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to advise the nation on science and technology
  • A Guide to Plant Patents — this page on About.com describes how to go about getting a patent on your plants.
  • Travels with my plant: Monsanto v. Schmeiser revisited, by Bruce Ziff, Faculty of Law, University of Alberta. Copyright © 2005 by Bruce Ziff.