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Monday, April 14, 2014

Monsanto vs. Schmeiser: The Case of the Accidental Farmer

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 
― Robert Louis Stevenson

My daughter bought me tickets to the theatre for my birthday. It was a busy week so I didn’t have time to sit down and research the play before the show date, but I had heard it was getting great reviews. “Seeds” is an original play by Annabel Soutar of Montreal. When we sat down at the NAC and I opened the program I was thrilled to see that Eric Peterson of “Corner Gas” was the lead. And as the play began, I realized I was familiar with the story.

“Seeds” was developed out of a series of interviews with key players in the Monsanto vs. Schmeiser drama. Soutar was fascinated with the story of the Saskatchewan canola farmer sued by the biotechnology giant Monsanto. The company claimed Schmeiser ‘stole’ their genetically modified seed, which is resistant to the pesticide “Roundup” and allows farmers to spray entire fields, killing all weeds and leaving healthy canola plants behind.  They said tests of his crop showed over 60% GM canola, so he likely purchased it from a licensed neighbour and cultivated it in his own fields illegally. Schmeiser claims that first crop in 1997 blew in off a passing truck and planted itself.

In 1998, realizing what he had, Schmeiser kept and replanted the super-seed. Monsanto claimed the old farmer had broken patent law. Schmeiser said his field was forever contaminated by the genetically modified seed, and he was just going about his business, exercising his rights as a farmer to replant his own seeds.

The play was built upon a series of interviews with key players in the courtroom and canola field drama. Eric Peterson does a fantastic job in the role of Schmeiser, the canola farmer and member of municipal council in the small town of Bruno, Saskatchewan.

The legal debate, of course, is about far more than the presence in Schmeiser’s fields of genetically-modified seeds containing a patented, pesticide-resistant gene. The case asks the question, where do you draw the line? If the gene is patented, fine, but it’s in the seed. And the seed produces a plant. And by the way, the seeds are pretty hardy and able to grow without a lot of human intervention. It’s quite plausible that they would take root and germinate on their own if spilled onto fertile ground.

Schmeiser stood up for the rights of farmers to cultivate their land and everything that grows on it. And with that course, he sparked the debate about genetically modified organism (GMO) food. Turns out it may not be all that good for us. That is a touchy subject, to be sure. If you ask a farmer who makes his livelihood on GM crops, he isn’t going to be very receptive to your opinion. But the point is technology can be dangerous if it is allowed to proceed without testing and preparation for “unintended consequences”.

Where do we draw the line between stronger, disease-resistant crops and our own health? What about the steroids and antibiotics that we put into feed for beef and chicken? They may help farmers to grow bigger, better animals but when we ingest the additives somewhere down the food chain, how do they affect us? Is our desire to scientifically alter our food so that it grows bigger, produces more and lasts longer, linked to the increasing prevalence of cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s and other health issues? I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying, to use an old farming term, it sounds to me like we’ve put the cart before the horse. Biotechnology is awesome. Scientists have made such advancements in food production that we may be able to one day eradicate world hunger. But at what cost? Is it too much to ask that our science must also be socially responsible?

As in the case of many documentary films and pieces of investigative journalism, “Seeds” asks the hard questions. Because we don’t want to become a victim of our own unintended consequences.

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