OTTAWA -- The case of a small-time farmer from the remote Saskatchewan plains, now before Canada's highest court, may represent the best chance yet for foes of the global biotech revolution to get the law on their side.
Agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. (NYSE: MON) sued the farmer, Percy Schmeiser, after its agents found biotech canola growing in his fields in 1997. It contends he replanted seeds from those plants without paying a technology fee of about $12 an acre.
But Schmeiser says the Monsanto canola, originating from neighbors' fields, got onto his 1,400 acres without his involvement or knowledge. The 73-year-old farmer says the contamination of his crops destroyed a lifetime of work improving them, so it's hardly right that he would have to pay for Monsanto's seed.
The biotech seed could have migrated to Schmeiser's land as airborne pollen, carried by animals or spilled from a cart, he speculates.
But Monsanto, which has a lien on Schmeiser's farm after two lower-court victories, says there was simply too much biotech canola in his fields for the accidental exposure explanation to be credible.
It insists Schmeiser must pay every year for seed, just like 30,000 other canola farmers in Canada, where roughly half the 10 million acres of canola have been converted since 1996 to Monsanto's variety, which is engineered to survive the company's patented weed killer Roundup.
"The bottom line for us is that his possession and growing was not an accident," Monsanto spokeswoman Trish Jordan said.
Schmeiser may find more sympathy during his hearing Tuesday before Canada's Supreme Court, which a little more than a year ago refused to grant Harvard University a "patent on life" for a genetically engineered mouse.
His supporters also include the government of Ontario, which argues that public health suffers when life forms are patented. The province is ignoring patents held by Myriad Genetics (Nasaq:MYGN) of Salt Lake City on two genes implicated in breast cancer, administering its own cancer tests at a third of Myriad's list price.
The Canadian justices will hold three hours of arguments Tuesday, and rule in several months.
A decision against Monsanto would be a tremendous boost for the forces mobilizing against biotechnology. Dozens of activist groups have descended on Canada's frigid capital, determined to make Schmeiser an international cause celebre.
They're also hunting for a U.S. Schmeiser to challenge the St. Louis-based company -- perhaps from among the 90 farmers activists say Monsanto has sued for seed theft since 1997.
"This is so much bigger than Percy," said Nadege Adam of the Council of Canadians, which formed a coalition of Schmeiser defenders that also includes the Sierra Club of Canada and the Washington D.C.-based International Center for Technology Assessment.
Monsanto, which sold more than $1.6 billion in genetically engineered seeds last year after spending about $500 million on research and development, has tried to downplay Schmeiser's fame. The company stresses that it has no choice but to crack down on any farmer using its technology for free.
"Clearly, we believe that respect for intellectual property is important," Jordan said. "We have invested quite a bit in this technology and we expect people to play by the rules and we expect a return on it."
For centuries, farmers have improved their crops by culling their best plants and husbanding seeds for the next planting season. Developing nations see these practices as sacrosanct, but increasingly threatened by the spread of genetically modified crops, which even subsistence farmers are required to pay for each year.
In the end, it's the questions about life itself that have attracted all the attention from farmers, activists, biotech lobbyists and the international press corps.
"Who can patent life, and who owns life, whether it's seeds, plants, animals and so on?" Schmeiser asked Monday at a news conference. "Those are some of the main issues that really concern me on a personal level."
Schmeiser views the dispute through a property rights prism, arguing that no corporation should have the control Monsanto has asserted over the farms where its patented varieties of crops are grown.
Similar views are strongly held in India, South America and elsewhere in the developing world. Led by the Indian activist Vandana Shiva, that movement has galvanized around Schmeiser, a former conservative Catholic member of his provincial parliament and ex-mayor of Bruno, Saskatchewan (population: 600).
Schmeiser has visited 40 countries in the last two years, receiving standing ovations from organic farming conventions and anti-biotech rallies from Marin County, Calif. to Osaka, Japan. Worldwide donations have poured in.
Still, Schmeiser has paid a steep price for refusing to settle. He owes Monsanto about $140,000 in judgments, amassed legal fees of $230,000, and has rented out all but 140 acres of his farm.
"The stress this has caused my family is unreal," said Schmeiser, who considers himself an accidental activist.
"It was not by choice," he said. "I'd rather be fishing with my 15 grandchildren."
On the Net:
Canada Supreme Court: http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca/Welcome/index-e.asp