Perhaps other 77 year olds would simply retire and step back from a battle of such magnitude. Not Percy Schmeiser. He is used to making news.
A keynote speaker at Canada's largest outdoor organics festival, Schmeiser cautioned listeners to beware the lure and dangers of genetically engineered (GE) crops.
This weekend, the Saskatchewan farmer spoke at the Organic Islands Festival in Victoria to an audience who’s aware of his efforts and tribulations.
Schmeiser’s 50-year research on regionally adapted canola became contaminated with airborne pollen containing genes from fields growing Roundup Ready, one of Monsanto's product lines.
He took Monsanto all the way to the Supreme Court after the agro-chemical company sued him for using its product without purchasing it. Schmeiser claimed he never used the product. The Supreme Court found in Monsanto’s favour because their Roundup Ready canola was protected by a patent.
However, in an out of court settlement finalized in March, Monsanto agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated his fields, and Monsanto can be sued again if contamination recurs.
Throughout the multiple court cases Schmeiser stood firm in his belief that once GE organisms are released into the environment there will be "no calling back" the genie.
Schmeiser explained that selection and husbandry have been a cornerstone of agriculture since the first organized harvests. In the last 100 years, the use of science to modify the characteristics of a plant or animal has been instrumental in increased tonnage per hectare.
While the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s resulted in improved harvest levels, it was often only because of substantial inputs of pesticides, herbicides and oil based technology.
In many countries this proved a disastrous combination, impoverishing the soils, the farmers, and whole countries, said Schmeiser.
Genetically modified crops need a significant increase in proprietary chemicals. Super-chemical Roundup is reported to be four times stronger today because of new active ingredients, he said, adding that Agent Orange of Vietnam War fame is emerging as a component in the new cocktails contained in the GE suite offered by agro-chemical companies
The insertion of genetic material from one organism into the makeup of another crosses a new line in ethics and bio-history, he said. Slipping fish genes into yeasts or creating a new add-mix of material from unrelated species has many worried about the long term effects.
Rice with human genes to produce low cost pharmaceuticals or corn to create non-petrochemical adhesives seems at first glance like a logical — and ecological — next-step in the application of science. But Schmeiser questions the wisdom of this.
A plant does not differentiate geneticaly pollen from natural material and incorporates it into the next generation. Genetically modified organisms have the potential to become so pervasive so quickly that even the call to clearly label foodstuff is a debate that needed to happen yesterday, he said.
Because of the many unknowns, such biotech manipulation was kept out of Europeans’ diet by European Union from 1999 to 2003.
Schmeiser questions whether rising obesity and diabetes rates are a result of modern farming methods and profit seeking.
The Sierra Club and Greenpeace are but two of the many calling for a halt to the release of the seeds of modified sugar beets, corn, soy, rice, potatoes and wheat. All are used in the production of food and food products, but now have the added attraction of being the base for agro-fuels.
Biofuels are seen as a potential saviour in rising energy costs, but the creation of bio-diesel and ethanol are pushing the early adoption of the new crops without extensive testing or research, Schmeiser explained.
Traditionally, farmers held back a small percentage of their crop for next year's planting, but this age-old practice is now threatened by “terminator seeds.” Terminator seeds only produce a crop once after which all seeds are sterile. There are no subsequent generations.
Could taking away seeds’ ability to reproduce result in a global catastrophe?
“We must support the rights of farmers to use their own seed," said Schmeiser.
Schmeiser told his listeners how Powell River, British Columbia, became a GE Free Zone in 2004. Being a GE free crop zone means a region is free of propagating, cultivating or raising genetically engineered organisms by people, firms or corporations.
Song is a powerful way to share an experience, and a musician summarized Schemier's story in three quick verses, much to the audience’s delight. But it was when Schmeiser invited his wife, Louise, to the stage that emotions ran highest.
Schmeiser credits Louise with supplying the energy to stay the course and raising questions about "who owns life?" and "can we patent life-forms?" The Schmeisers won the Right Livelihood Award in 2007.