When it’s David vs. Goliath, David isn’t always right.
In the upcoming film Percy, Christopher Walken will play real-life, small-town Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who challenged notorious seed giant Monsanto in court in 1998 after his unauthorized use of the company’s genetically modified (GMO) canola was discovered on his land.
Schmeiser’s become a folk hero within the anti-GMO movement, and Christina Ricci has been cast as a friendly anti-GMO activist in this story of one man’s righteous war against the greedy, soulless, corporate conglomerate.
On the surface, this seems like a story ripe for a Hollywood film. There’s already a TV movie about it titled David Versus Monsanto, spelling out the classic little guy taking on “The Man” narrative we can all get behind because, after all, who doesn’t love a good tale of the underdog battling against The Machine?
There’s only one problem. Much of this story is fiction. There really is a Percy Schmeiser, and he really did battle with Monsanto in the courts, but the film is based on Schmeiser’s version of the story, and his story is likely BS.
The rest of the story
Percy Schmeiser would have people believe Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds accidentally contaminated his land when the wind blew the seeds onto his farm from a nearby property — the “Wind Did It” defense. Once he noticed these crops had survived treatment with Monsanto’s brand of the herbicide glysophate, Roundup — which it’s designed to do, as well as killing surrounding weeds — he harvested the field and saved seeds for the following year, without a license, instead of disposing of them.
It’s package deal. Roundup is an incredibly potent herbicide, so potent, that it can often not just kill the weeds but also the very plants it’s meant to protect. This led Monsanto to develop specially formulated seeds called Roundup Ready that were uniquely resistant.. So, if you’re using the herbicide Roundup on your farm, you would have an incredibly strong incentive to grow Roundup Ready crops you know will reliably endure glyphosate exposure.
Schmeiser says he “discovered” the patented Roundup Ready crops, then willfully harvested them, and intentionally planted new generations of the unlicensed seeds. When Monsanto found out, they insisted he pay the required licensing fee for use of their intellectual property. He refused, claiming that the stolen seeds (whether deliberate or not) were now his because he planted them. It’s hard to imagine a clearer case of patent infringement.
Schmeiser’s tale is a bit like Wells Fargo claiming ignorance regarding their recent unauthorized accounts scandal that just so happened to inflate their stock price, saying they were blindsided by news their sales goals and quotas were overly aggressive to the point of blatant corruption. The real difference is a conglomerate like Wells Fargo is right out of villain central casting, while we’re predisposed to want to root for the lone, independent, septuagenarian farmer battling the already hated corporation. Before even examining the unique facts of the case, we’re primed to stand with the little guy over the corporate Goliath.
Wheat from chaff
Tests of Schmeiser’s farm revealed 95%-98% of his 1,000 acres of canola crop were unlicensed Roundup Ready Canola, according to the court judgment. It strains credibility this was the result of a simple misunderstanding. The federal judge wasn’t buying it either. He concluded that Schmeiser’s wind defense — ahem — blew, and did not reasonably explain how almost his entire canola crop was “contaminated” by unlicensed seeds.
Environmentalist Mark Lynas examines the Schmeiser case specifically in his 2018 book Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs, quoting the decision from the Canadian Supreme Court:
Mr. Schmeiser complained that the original plants came onto his land without his intervention. However, he did not at all explain why he sprayed Roundup to isolate the Roundup Ready plants he found on his land; why he then harvested the plants and segregated the seeds, saved them, and kept them for seed; why he next planted them; and why, through this husbandry, he ended up with 1,030 acres of Roundup Ready Canola which would otherwise have cost him $15,000.
Now, of course, many people find the notion of patenting living seeds itself objectionable — indeed, it’s an often cited criticism of genetically engineered crops, even though seed patenting has been around for a long time and many non-GMO seeds, even organic ones, are also patented.
In Seeds of Science, Lynas described his conversations with industry scientists regarding the purpose of patents and intellectual property rights in modern agriculture. They explained that it’s a heavily regulated industry and seed companies, like any high-tech industry, endure steep costs in Research and Development. If there isn’t sufficient return on investment, there’s little incentive to innovate.
Aggressive enforcement of these patents keeps competitors from “making the same discovery and then claiming ownership,” an issue that’s especially important in niche applications that may only benefit small farmers with limited means, not to mention poorer countries who, Lynas says, “would never realistically yield a commercial dividend.”
Suppose Schmeiser really was the tragic victim of the wind, as he still maintains. Even he has testified to eventually discovering these were someone else’s seeds. He could have had Monsanto remove them from his land at no cost to himself and returned to growing unpatented canola crops instead of pirating patented ones to fill 95% of his fields.
If Schmeiser was pirating books or music, making a living off of selling copies of the intellectual property of entertainment industries populated by artists, maybe he wouldn’t be so idolized. But because Monsanto is despised, rightly or wrongly, and because there’s an organized anti-GMO and anti-herbicide movement motivated to create folk heroes out of deadbeats, Schmeiser is one pirate Hollywood evidently wants to elevate to martyr.