Farmer Percy Schmeiser says unlabelled genetically modified food violates human rights

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      At the end of 2009, 930,000 tonnes of Canadian-produced flaxseed was left with nowhere to go. The massive amount of unsold product was meant for European markets, which account for 70 percent of flax grown in Canada.

      The European Union shut the door on Canadian flax after genetically modified organisms were detected in 11 Canadian shipments in less than one month.

      Canadian farmers knew that GMO flax is not approved for sale in Europe. The crops were contaminated, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network representative Lucy Sharratt told Reuters in October.

      This story and the threat such incidents pose to the livelihoods of Canadian farmers is one that Percy Schmeiser is sure to highlight at his upcoming engagement in Vancouver.

      While proponents of the biotechnology tout GMOs as an invaluable tool to help feed a growing human population, Schmeiser and others have argued that for 13 years, the increasing prevalence of GMOs has eroded farmers’ rights.

      A GMO is a plant that has been genetically engineered to include a gene from another organism. Plants are genetically modified by agricultural corporations like Monsanto to introduce desirable characteristics, such as a resistance to pests.

      According to a 2004 CBC News report, some estimates indicate that as many as 30,000 grocery store products contain GMOs. Today, that number is likely to be significantly higher.

      “There is no longer the possibility that you can even have organic farmers,” Schmeiser told the Straight in a telephone interview. “You cannot have coexistence. And I think that a lot of the organic farmers did not realize how serious the situation was until they realized, three or four years ago, that they could lose their certification overnight.”

      The Saskatchewan farmer gained notoriety over the course of the last decade through a string of highly publicized court battles with Monsanto Canada Inc., a division of Monsanto Company, which is the world’s largest seed supplier.

      Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto in 1998 for allegedly violating patent rights for biotechnology via the cultivation of genetically modified canola seeds. He finally won his battle with the multinational corporation in an out-of-court settlement agreed upon in March 2008. Monsanto paid all clean-up costs for Schmeiser’s fields.

      “It wasn’t just a victory for ourselves, but for all farmers,” Schmeiser said. “If you are contaminated now, there is an avenue, or a precedent has been set, where you can take Monsanto to court.”

      Trish Jordan, a spokesperson for Monsanto, said that it is and always has been a farmer’s right to choose what sort of crop they grow, and remains so today. She noted that since Monsanto began selling seeds modified through biotechnology, global yields of certified organic crops have significantly increased.

      “It is completely their choice as to whether or not they want to sign that contract and whether or not they want to use our technology,” Jordan maintained.

      Monsanto has farmers sign contracts which often stipulate that seeds cannot be saved from one year to the next, but must be purchased each growing season. Addressing concerns related to such contracts, Jordan emphasized that worldwide, the corporation spends US$2.6 million a day on research and development in over 80 countries.

      “It takes anywhere from five to 10 years, and probably closer to eight to 10 years, and US$50 to US$100 million, to bring a new technology to the marketplace,” she explained. “So we do put a significant amount of research and development dollars into developing new products, and those products are directed only at farmers, because farmers are our only customers.”

      Schmeiser went on to say that just as great a concern as farmers’ rights to choose what they grow, are consumers’ rights to know what they are eating. He said that the consumption of GMOs could have potentially detrimental health consequences for consumers and that is why products containing GMOs should be labelled in a way that says so.

      “It is a drastic violation of human rights in Canada when we don’t know what is in our food,” Schmeiser emphasized.

      Garnet Etsell, chair of the British Columbia Agriculture Council, told the Straight that his organization officially has no position on GMO labelling. He explained that is because it is his opinion that there is currently no scientific evidence indicating that GMOs are harmful to people’s health.

      “Proper labelling is important,” Etsell said from his farm in Abbotsford. But, he added, “I think the concern is that improper labelling absolutely can affect sales and profit margins. So if there is not a strong basis and justification, then I don’t see the need for it.”

      In June 2007, Alex Atamanenko, NDP MP for British Columbia Southern Interior, tabled a private member’s bill that would have required the labelling of GMOs in food. Shortly after, the Bloc Québécois introduced a similar bill which was voted down by the Conservative and Liberal parties.

      More recently, Atamanenko has targeted GMOs with a different approach. On November 2, 2009, Bill C-474—an act to amend the Seeds Regulations—received a first reading in the House of Commons.

      If passed, C-474 would place a moratorium on the introduction of new GMO species in Canada pending an economic analysis of the effects any introduction of a new GMO could have on farmers in the country.

      “I think it is pretty hard not to support a bill that is going to help farmers,” Atamanenko said from his office in Castlegar.

      He expressed disappointment that debate on C-474 has been postponed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proroguing of Parliament, and said that he is looking forward to seeing the bill receive a second reading scheduled for the third week of March.

      Tara Moreau, a director for the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, would also like to see more research done on GMOs. An entomologist, she told the Straight that there is a place for GMOs, but that further research is needed.

      According to Moreau, if consumers want to ensure that they avoid consuming GMOs, the only way to do it is to buy foods that are certified organic.

      “I know that there are lots of people pushing to have labelling of foods but I don’t see it happening,” she said. “My advice to always buy organic.”

      Schmeiser is scheduled to speak at the Vancouver Unitary Church (5840 Oak Street) on Saturday (February 6) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $19 in advance and $25 at the door. Complete event information is available at

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      An Organic Producer

      Feb 4, 2010 at 1:37pm

      Congratulations Mr. Schmeiser. You (and the world) deserved better and finally got it. And Monsanto Trish - BALONEY! It has been Monsanto's mission from the start to own food. Many farmers no longer feel like they have a choice because of GMO pollution. They'll be raising GMOs whether they want to or not. Nefarious scumbags.


      Feb 4, 2010 at 8:04pm

      While my sympathies lie with Percy (Monsanto, Cargill, et al are corporate thugs), it is quite enlightening to read about the positives of GM crops in Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand. You might not agree, but it sure makes you think.

      8 9Rating: -1

      M. Davis

      Feb 5, 2010 at 4:00pm

      Yes, indeed, Mr. Schmeiser. For years now, I've been in a stew over the insidious threat of GMO and have felt that my human rights were being violated, not to mention the fear and worry factor over being "force fed" without labeling of GMO. With time, I have learned how to completely avoid GMOs but it's been difficult. Now I worry that certified organic is becoming a thing of the past, because of possible, made - easy by USDA, FDA, governments US and Canadian, -contamination of organic fields. Thanks, Mr. Schmeiser, for bringing this to the public as a human rights issue, as well as a health and environment issue.

      11 9Rating: +2

      Agent Orange Legacy

      Feb 5, 2010 at 6:05pm

      An abundance of food which is not edible is no benefit to humanity especially if it taints the crops which have not been genetically altered. It seems to be a lose, lose situation even for Monsanto. It might not appear that way now but time will tell. Just as it has with agent orange. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Monsanto and others involved knew more than they revealed to the public. 40 years later, the consequences have not subsided but continue to multiply affecting thousands upon thousands of innocent people. I do hope more people speak out before it's too late.

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      glen p robbins

      Feb 14, 2010 at 2:30pm

      I understand the sentiment of the alleged human rights breach, however I believe more can be accomplished by focusing on this as a breach against consumers. Where is Industry Canada on this?

      D Annis

      Mar 2, 2010 at 6:00am

      I believe there is a huge danger of drought caused by the GM crops as they do not produce a gas which is a trigger for rain and will eventually turn the soil into unusable desert.
      I also believe GM foods will be shown to cause birth defects, sterility and destroy immune systems.
      Farmers planting GM crops will be spiritually/karmically responsible for the harm that they will do.
      Tune in Sundays 8pm EST to Bryan Farnum talks about such things- he is right on and he's extremely gifted

      13 8Rating: +5

      Carol Fern

      Sep 5, 2010 at 1:54pm

      Everyone should view a free film at
      If anyone eats GMO after viewing that film, well.......
      Scientific studies show tiny animals with smaller brains, livers and testicles; show that the bacteria used in the herbicide does inded mingle with human gut bacteria, infertility in farm livestock, and negative changes in behaviour. If given a choice, animals will just smell the gmo and leave it. It is reported that wild animals will not eat it. The horror stories go on, yet our MPs refuse to answer concerns. Those who release GMOs into our environment should be sued out of existence. Yet I read that the Canadian government receives financial compensation for approving the release - while Canadian citizens are the ones that suffer.

      8 13Rating: -5