Percy Schmeiser looks back 20 years at fight against Monsanto

Nearly twenty years ago, small-town Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser was launched into the spotlight for what was billed by many as a David-and-Goliath confrontation with biotech giant Monsanto Canada.

On August 6, 1998, Percy Schmeiser was sued by biotech giant Monsanto for patent infringement

Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser smiles as he leaves the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa Tuesday Jan. 20, 2004. (Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)

Nearly twenty years ago, small-town Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser was launched into the spotlight for what was billed by many as a David-and-Goliath confrontation with biotech giant Monsanto Canada.

"It changed our lives completely," said Schmeiser, 87, in an interview with CBC News.

"It was a very difficult situation because of the increased publicity...it was a lot of pressure on our family and a lot of our privacy was gone."

The case, which featured a massive corporation fighting for its intellectual property and a farmer fighting for traditional ways of farming, drew worldwide attention.

"You have a multi-billion dollar corporation fighting a farmer that would not have the same resources that they would have and that was very difficult," said Schmeiser.

"If I had not had the support and help of the many people around the world I could not have done it."

As the world media descends on Percy Schmeiser and his battle with Monsanto, neighbours and scientists question the validity of his defence. 7:46

Twenty years ago

On August 6, 1998, Schmeiser received a letter from Monsanto saying he was being sued for patent violation after the company's Roundup Ready canola - a genetically modified canola that altered the plant's genes to make it resistant to Roundup - was found growing on his farm near Bruno.

For years, Schmeiser argued that seeds from Monsanto's genetically-modified canola landed on his farm by accident and that he owned the seeds because they were on his physical property.

Traditionally, farmers use their seeds from one year's crop to plant the next year's. But if they buy the Roundup Ready canola from Monsanto they have to buy new seeds every year. Schmeiser never purchased the seeds and Monsanto claimed he knowingly harvested and re-grew their stolen property.

"It has never been Monsanto's policy nor will it ever be our policy to exercise our patent rights where Roundup-tolerant crops are present in a farmers field as a result of an inadvertent or unexpected act," said Trish Jordan, Monsanto's Public and Industry Affairs Director.

"That was definitely not the case with Mr. Schmeiser."

The legal battle between farmer Percy Schmeiser and biotech giant Monsanto Canada centred around the company's genetically-modified canola. (Shutterstock)

The case was heard at the Federal Court of Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. In the end, the supreme court sided with Monsanto in a five-to-four decision.

Even though he lost, Schmeiser saw the case as a win, as the Supreme Court ruled each party pay their own legal expenses, so Schmeiser "didn't have to pay Monsanto not one red cent," he said.

"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," he said.

"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."

'We didn't know if we would have a farm left'

Schmeiser said he was fighting for the rights of farmers, but the fight wasn't always easy because of the pressure it put on his family.

Percy Schmeiser said his wife Louise was fully supportive throughout his battle with Monsanto. (The Associated Press)

He said he would often wonder if he was doing the right thing, but his wife always reassured him that he was.

"For a long time we didn't know if we would have a farm left, whether we'd have a house left, our farm left because of the cost of legal expenses to stand up to a corporation like that," he said.

"In the end we still had a roof over our head and we were able to maintain our farming practice, and bring attention to how people could lose the rights to their seeds and plants."

And as the 20-year anniversary of the lawsuit looms, Schmeiser is still troubled by the fact that a corporation can own a farmers crops.

"People settled in this country so they could be free and farmers could grow the plants that we want and that right should not be taken away," he said.

"We don't think it's right."

'Didn't surprise us'

The case posed challenges for Monsanto too, like being showcased as the "big bad company."

"It was like a big company against the perception of a small little farmer who really did nothing wrong and people like stories of heroes versus companies," said Jordan about the case.

"So that part didn't surprise us."

But, Jordan said there are different angles to the story and if you look at it from a business perspective then Monsanto isn't the bad guy.

"Mr. Schmeiser and his supporters did a very good job of creating doubt and telling their creative stories," she said.

"But, in the court of law where you have to tell the truth and you have to present evidence it's pretty clear that his story was not believable."

Jordan added that in the twenty years that have passed, the case hasn't had a negative impact on the company.

"Overall our business continued to thrive, continued to grow, we continued to bring new technology to market, and we continue to have a very strong business today."

"This definitely was an iconic case, but we've moved on."