In Memoriam: Farmer and Seed Saving Crusader Percy Schmeiser

by Tanya Kerssen, Medium

Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser spent decades maintaining and improving his canola crop as farmers have done for millennia — selecting the strongest plants, saving their seeds, and replanting them the following season. One August day in 1998, however, Schmeiser received a letter from Monsanto lawyers informing him he was being sued for patent violation: the company’s “Roundup Ready” canola, a genetically engineered canola that altered the plant’s genes to make it resistant to Roundup herbicide, had been found in Percy’s fields.

As the farm advocacy organization GRAIN explains, “Canadian farmers have a long and strong tradition of seed saving, especially in the western prairies where Schmeiser is from. Canola, the crop Schmeiser grew, is itself a product of farmer seed saving, farmer selection, and publicly funded research. It’s an example of what plant breeding can accomplish without patents. It’s also an example of why co-existence between GM (genetically modified) and non-GM crops is impossible. Today, all of the canola acreage in Western Canada is contaminated with Monsanto’s patented ‘Roundup-Ready’ gene.”

What ensued was an epic David vs. Goliath battle that pit the rights of farmers to save and replant seeds against agribusiness attempts to make it ever-more difficult for farmers to plant anything but their patented varieties. Percy did not set out to be an anti-biotech activist. But the pollen from genetically engineered crops blown onto his farm — and Monsanto’s legal intimidation — sealed his fate as a globally recognized seed and farm justice leader.

The stakes were, and still are, high. It’s a struggle to protect the world’s Native, farmer-bred, and publicly-funded plant varieties—the foundation of global food security and climate resilience—from obliteration by privately-controlled GE crops. It’s a struggle to hold those agribusiness corporations accountable for their technologies instead of criminalizing hapless farmers who, as Percy always maintained, never wanted or benefitted from GE seeds.

Percy ultimately lost that court battle — but he grew the movement. In 2018, looking back on his 20-year fight against Monsanto, he commented: “In the end it turned out good and we brought the world’s attention to what GMOs do and what it could do to farmers… We always felt if you grow a product or a seed on your land you should have the right to reseed it and that right should not be taken away.”

Percy Schmeiser passed away last week at 89 years old, just as a major motion picture about his life, starring Christopher Walken, is being released (view the “Percy” trailer on YouTube).

Meanwhile, Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) and other agribusiness giants aggressively pursue the monopolization of seed markets, the rewriting of seed and patent laws in their favor, and the criminalization of farmers’ seed saving practices.

Around the world — and in the Global South especially, where most of the world’s seed diversity is managed for local food security — small farmers and their allies continue to fight for the right to save and share seeds. For the international peasant farmer confederation La Vía Campesina, “seed sovereignty” is a cornerstone of agroecology and food sovereignty. Now more than ever, Indigenous seed keeping knowledge and practices are recognized as critical to our collective response to the climate crisis. And of course, anyone can save seeds and be part of the global seed sovereignty movement.

Rest in Power, Percy Schmeiser. And long live the seed keepers.