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In Context #11 (Spring, 2004, pp. 3-7); copyright 2004 by The Nature Institute

The Trouble with Genetically Modified Crops

Craig Holdrege

I. Percy Schmeiser's Plight

In January, the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser spoke in Albany, NY. The talk was arranged by the Regional Food and Farm Project in Albany and co-sponsored by The Nature Institute. Craig was asked to introduce Percy and had the opportunity to speak with him before the talk.

If it weren't true, you'd think you were hearing someone's worst nightmare, or a plot crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter. I mean the case of the Canadian Farmer, Percy Schmeiser.

Schmeiser, who is seventy-three years old, has a farm in Saskatchewan about 250 miles north of the U.S. border. He and his wife have spent fifty years as farmers, and for the last thirty years have been saving their canola seed in order to develop a hardy and pest-resistant variety adapted to their region. In 1998 Schmeiser received notice from the biotech company Monsanto that he was growing their genetically modified (GM), herbicide-resistant canola (so-called Roundup Ready canola) illegally. They accused him of patent infringement, since farmers are allowed to plant the GM variety only if they sign an agreement and pay a $15-per-acre fee. According to Monsanto, Schmeiser was growing their protected variety but had paid no fees. Schmeiser admitted never paying fees, since he had no interest in GM canola. After all, long years of experience had convinced him that his own seeds were higher in quality than anything he could buy from a biotechnology company.

photo of Percy Schmeiser kneeling in a field

Percy Schmeiser. (Photo courtesy of Percy Schmeiser.)

But Monsanto had received an anonymous tip on its call-in hotline that Schmeiser was using Roundup Ready canola. In 1997 it sent investigators from a "private eye" company to take samples near the road from edges of Schmeiser's fields. (Since they were within the "road allowance" they didn't consider this trespassing.) Tests came back positive. That is, Monsanto's herbicide-resistance gene construct was present in at least some of the samples. In the same year Schmeiser discovered, after having sprayed the herbicide Roundup around power poles and on a roadside ditch, that a significant number of canola plants survived. Normally Roundup kills everything green in its path. Schmeiser had no idea where the resistant "volunteers" came from, but it was a disturbing sight: herbicide-resistant canola was becoming a weed, mainly at the edge of his fields.

In 1998, samples were again taken from Schmeiser's fields, GM canola was found, and Monsanto took Schmeiser to court for patent infringement. You can imagine Schmeiser's dismay: a seed-saving farmer, who values his decades of work, is accused of unlawfully using someone else's seeds. From Schmeiser's perspective, his rights were being infringed upon, because Monsanto's plants were infiltrating his fields and perhaps cross-pollinating with his own plants, which would wreak havoc with his seed development.

So the case was heard before a federal judge in Saskatchewan. The judge ruled in favor of Monsanto and Schmeiser was ordered to destroy all the seeds from his 1998 crop — which brought his seed-saving efforts to an abrupt end. He was ordered to pay a fine of 19,832 Canadian dollars for not having paid for the Monsanto plants that grew in his fields (in addition to C$153,000 court costs). The judge ruled that it was irrelevant whether Schmeiser grew the crops intentionally or not — "intention is immaterial" (§ 115 of ruling). Focusing on very narrow legal questions, the judge argued that Schmeiser knew already in 1997 that there were resistant volunteers in his fields, and he saved his seeds in that year and planted them in 1998. In his view, Schmeiser knew or "ought to have known" (§ 120 of ruling) that there were GM seeds in his seed stock. It didn't matter that Schmeiser didn't want such volunteers and, of course, never sprayed Roundup over his fields — which he ought to have done if we wanted to make use of the GM crop's herbicide resistance. He was found guilty nonetheless. If you are shaking your head in disbelief, join the crowd.

A federal appeals court (consisting of three judges) upheld the ruling, but Canada's Supreme Court agreed to hear Schmeiser's case. The court heard the case on January 20 of this year. The judges allowed Schmeiser to address broader issues than in the original case. These included the question whether higher life forms such as plants can be owned via patents and whether the rights of farmers to save their own seed and to grow organic and conventional crops are being protected. The Supreme Court will deliberate on the case this spring and a decision will probably be announced in late spring or in early fall.

After all he's been through, you'd think Schmeiser might have become a cynical, embittered man. But, no, he is modest and soft-spoken, radiating integrity. He had been a mayor of his town and also a member of the provincial parliament. As he said in his Albany, NY talk, "I've spent my life working for the rights of farmers." The Monsanto case was more than he bargained for, but Monsanto probably had no idea that Schmeiser would become such a tenacious foe, gaining worldwide attention for his case. Schmeiser firmly believes in the rights of individual farmers to save and develop their own seeds and views his court appeal as a test case for all farmers. Despite all he's been through, Schmeiser will keep fighting. He jokes that he had planned to retire a number of years ago, but his wife complained, "what will I do with you around the house all the time?" So he planted his fields again, and along came Monsanto. Little did he know what kind of activist retirement lay before him. In the past four years he has not only been in the courts, but has also traveled the globe, speaking to the public, farmers, scientists, and governments.

Schmeiser has filed a counter-suit against Monsanto for contaminating his crop. But until the other case is brought to closure, he cannot afford to pursue it. For more information on Percy Schmeiser and his plight, go to

wheat field in Canada

In 1999 the Canadian field above was planted with wheat. Then in 2000 the farmer let it lie fallow and sprayed it twice with the herbicide, Roundup, to stop weed growth. But herbicide-resistant GM canola plants thrived on the field - they appear as the "bushes" on the otherwise barren soil. No one knows how the seeds for these plants got into the field. (Photo: Percy Schmeiser.)

II. Some Larger Issues

Contamination, Social Fabric, and Pest Resistance

When farmers save their own seeds, they know what they are dealing with. The seeds have a history. But even when farmers buy seeds from a seed company, they expect a certain quality. The spread of GM crops brings — especially for those farmers who choose not to plant them — a whole new set of problems.

Within the last eight years the annual acreage of GM crops grown worldwide has increased from zero to 140 million acres — that's four times the area of New York State. Most of this acreage (about 110 million acres) is in the United States. But the acreage figures are ambiguous, since the crops do not stay put in the fields where they were first planted, as Schmeiser's case illustrates. Seeds and especially pollen can be transported through the air, landing in other farmers' fields. The seeds can then grow up among conventional or organic crops and the pollen can pollinate non-GM crops as well as weedy relatives.

There is now evidence of widespread contamination. For example, two years ago a Canadian scientist sprayed herbicide on twenty-seven varieties of pedigree canola grown from seed that was not supposed to be genetically modified for herbicide resistance. Nearly half of the plots — fourteen varieties — had plants in them that survived. These plants were genetically modified, herbicide-resistant plants whose had somehow found their way into the commercial varieties (Manitoba Co-operator, August 1, 2002). In February 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a study showing a high degree of contamination of conventional soybeans, corn, and canola by GM crops. (See sidebar.)

It's clear that non-genetically engineered crops planted anywhere near the engineered versions of the same crop will sooner or later be contaminated. If you are an organic farmer, this is an issue on which your livelihood depends. Your consumers assume they are getting non-engineered food, but you will have trouble guaranteeing the purity of your seeds and crops. Interestingly, the USDA's organic standards are process-based, which means that a farmer commits to following certain methods and not using others (such as genetic engineering). As long as a farmer follows these practices, the food can still be labeled organic, even if there is some contamination from GM crops, since he or she did not intend to use genetic engineering technology. Here (unlike in the Schmeiser court ruling) intention still matters — but, at the same time, a label such as "GM-free" becomes problematic. This problem is addressed in Europe by organic standards that include a one percent contamination limit for organically labeled crops. This, of course, gives American exporters of organic food further reason to worry about GM contamination.

There is a social issue involved in the spread of GM agriculture that Schmeiser described in his Albany talk. He spoke about the trust between farmers and how they help each other out in times of need. With the advent of GM crops, licensing fees, and the containment problem, social and personal barriers arise between farmers. One farmer suspects the other of using proprietary seed without paying and calls the industry hotline; another sees his fields being contaminated by some (often unknown) farm in the neighborhood. The fabric of the agricultural community, which has been deteriorating for decades with the onslaught of industrial agriculture and its ever larger and fewer farms, only unravels more with the advent of GM crops.

So why, asks Schmeiser, did farmers start using GM crops in the first place? Well, they were promised higher yields and a reduced need for chemicals. Monsanto argued that biotech brought sustainability into industrial agriculture. Every farmer would like to spray less poison on his fields, both for economic and environmental reasons. If this could be coupled with greater yields — well, then, few would argue with the GM option.

What has actually occurred? Those farmers using GM pesticide-producing crops (Bt crops) have been able to reduce the amount of insecticides they spray, since the whole crop has become a pesticide. When certain insect larvae begin feeding on the plant, they die. There is, however, one caveat in the calculations concerning reduced insecticide use: they don't take into account the amount of pesticides that the plant itself is making; only what the farmer buys and sprays is counted. If we factored in the plant-produced insecticide (no one has done this yet), it is questionable whether we would find a reduction in pesticide use.

In the case of herbicide-resistant crops, farmers are spraying more herbicides than before, which is due to rising herbicide resistance in weeds and also to the falling price of the herbicide glyphosate due to competition (Benbrook 2003). Since herbicide-resistant soybeans are by far the most prevalent GM crop being grown, the overall amount of pesticides (herbicide plus insecticide) applied in the U.S. has increased by fifty million pounds between 1996 and 2003.

With the increased use of the herbicide glyphosate (found in Monsanto's Roundup and in various other commercial products), there has been an increase in the number of weeds that have become resistant to it. At the outset, farmers could spray their field and everything green except for the GM crop would wither and die. Now weeds such as horseweed and waterhemp are no longer being killed by the herbicide. Anyone with knowledge of the history of pest management and ecological interactions could have foreseen this trend. Resistance to herbicides is nothing new and the more an herbicide is used, the more quickly resistant weeds develop. Farmers hope that the chemical industry will soon come up with new herbicides to "solve" the problems the previous generation of herbicides has caused. In reality, the problem is never solved; farmers simply exchange one poison for another at the cost of the environment. The biotech crops now in use are certainly not contributing to greater sustainability.

And what about financial gain? A 2002 study of the economic effects of GM crops by USDA scientists found that farmers rapidly adopted herbicide-resistant soybeans — "even though we could not find positive financial impacts in either field-level nor the whole-farm analysis" (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride 2002). So even in a narrow economic sense the most widely used GM crop is not benefiting the farmers who are using it. Evidently farmers are so strongly invested in the industrial model of agriculture, which now incorporates biotechnology as the newest means of "progress," that they continue to use it despite its problematic features and effects. (For a discussion of many problematic aspects of biotech agriculture, see Holdrege and Talbott 2000 and 2001.)

III. County Bans Growing of GM Crops

On March 2, voters in northern California's Mendocino County banned the cultivation of GM crops. The grassroots ballot initiative won fifty-six percent of the vote. It is the first such decision by a local community in the U.S.

The outcome was a surprise inasmuch as many observers assumed that the power of the biotech industry, with its financial clout and publicity machine, would prove unbeatable. Funneling its efforts through an organization called CropLife America, the industry poured over $600,000 into the campaign — more than has ever been spent on a ballot measure in this county of 46,000 voters. The ban supporters, in contrast, spent about $100,000. It's heartening to find that money does not always decide the outcome in such contests.

The vote also shows that there can be real concern about GM agriculture in a rural, agricultural community such as Mendocino County. And if such concerns are articulated and communicated via a grassroots initiative, as was there the case, the concern can translate into positive action via voting. Mendocino County is home to many organic farms and vineyards and these farmers are concerned about their livelihood in view of the specter of contamination by GM crops. This ban will definitely give them greater protection from contamination, which of course can't altogether be ruled out, since no place exists in a vacuum. (The law, for example, prohibits only the growing of GM crops. It prohibits neither the transport of GM seeds through the county nor the sale and use of GM food and feed.)

The campaign and the result of the vote are catalyzing and energizing similar initiatives in other counties. It's always easier once a precedent is set. The more such initiatives arise, the more the problem of GM food and agriculture will come into national awareness. As it is, there was little national coverage of the Mendocino ban. I was in the Bay area when the vote occurred and there was coverage in the regional newspapers, but the San Francisco Chronicle, northern California's largest daily, mentioned the vote only in a sentence tucked away in an article covering a variety of issues. It's a major task to make what is a real concern for the future of food and agriculture around the globe into a public issue in the country that is growing the bulk of GM crops. Such local initiatives are one means to help raise this awareness.


Benbrook, Charles (2003). "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in The United States: The First Eight Years," BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper Number 6:

Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge and William D. McBride (2002). Adoption of Bioengineered Crops. Agricultural Economic Report No. 810. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Holdrege, Craig and Steve Talbott (2001). "Sowing Technology." Sierra (July/August), pp. 34-39, 72; also published in NetFuture #123:

Holdrege, Craig and Stephen L. Talbott (2000). "Golden Genes and World Hunger: Let Them Eat Transgenic Rice?" NetFuture #108:

Original source: In Context #11 (Spring, 2004, pp. 3-7); copyright 2004 by The Nature Institute

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