- Canadian farm couple who took on Monsanto win 'alternative Nobel' in Sweden
Canadian Press, October 2, 2007
Straight to the Source
Percy and Louise Schmeiser of Bruno, Sask., have won the 2007 Right Livelihood Award, founded by a Swedish-German philanthropist to recognize work he felt was being ignored by the prestigious Nobel prizes.
The award recognizes those who promote peace, biodiversity and renewable energy. Other winners announced Tuesday by the Stockholm-based foundation are from Sri Lanka, Kenya and Bangladesh.
The Schmeisers were recognized for taking on Monsanto Co., the U.S. agribusiness giant, over the company's genetically engineered seeds.
"We raised crops long before the Monsantos of the world came on the scene," a defiant Percy Schmeiser told The Canadian Press by telephone from his farm 85 kilometres east of Saskatoon.
"I believe farmers should have the right to be free of genetic contamination and free to seed what they want and not be controlled by a corporation," said the 76-year-old farmer.
In 1998, Monsanto took the couple to court for using its genetically modified patented canola seeds without a licence, seeking damages totalling $400,000.
The farmers denied they had used the seeds, saying they could have been blown over from a neighbour's farm or passing trucks.
Monsanto had previously offered to withdraw the lawsuit if the Schmeisers signed a contract to buy their seeds from Monsanto and to pay the technology-use fee, the Swedish foundation said on its website.
But the Schmeisers turned down the offer and the case was taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Schmeisers lost the case as well as the right to use seed varieties they had painstakingly adapted to their local environment for years. The ruling said the couple did not have to pay the damages sought.
Percy Schmeiser, who served as the mayor of his hometown between 1963 and 1982, has become a folk hero for defenders of organic farming.
The couple admit the dispute with the U.S. company has changed their lives.
Since the lawsuit, Percy Schmeiser has campaigned across Canada and internationally against genetic engineering in agriculture.
But he admits that support for his cause in his own community of 571 people has been mixed.
"Some farmers feel they need all these chemicals to raise crops," he said.
"We call that a chemical addiction now ... and with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) comes the increased use of chemicals."
Monsanto says on its website that "more than 30,000 Canadian farmers have chosen our technology because of the economic and environmental benefits it brings."
The Schmeisers' legal battles with Monsanto are not over.
They are suing Monsanto, claiming the company's modified seeds should be considered contamination after the company's canola seeds continued to grow on their land even after they had switched to other crops.
Monsanto, based in St. Louis, Mo., agreed to remove the unwanted plants from their land if the Schmeisers signed a document with a non-disclosure statement and an assurance that they would never take the company to court, the Swedish foundation said.
The Schmeisers refused to sign and paid some workers to remove the plants. They sent Monsanto the bill of $600.
When Monsanto did not pay, the Schmeisers sued them in a provincial court. A trial is set to begin on Jan. 23, 2008.
Winners of the Right Livelihood Award share the $310,000 prize.
Nonprofit company Grameen Shakti was honoured for its work to promote solar energy among rural households in Bangladesh.
The company was created in 1996 under the Grameen Bank, which was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize together with its leader Muhammad Yunus for efforts to help the poor through tiny loans called microcredits.
Sri Lankan legal scholar Christopher Weermantry, a former vice-president of the International Court of Justice, was cited for his efforts to "strengthen and expand the rule of international law," the award citation said.
The prize also honoured Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a Muslim peace activist from Kenya, for her work to bridge religious and cultural differences.
Prize founder Jakob von Uexkull said Abdi and Weeramantry "demonstrate how war and terror can be overcome by peace-building and the rule of international law," while "the Schmeisers and Grameen Shakti show us how to protect two essential services of our global ecosystem: our agricultural resources and our global climate."
The awards will be presented in a ceremony at the Swedish Parliament on Dec. 7.
The Schmeisers, who will attend, said the timing couldn't have been better.
"The award came on our 55th wedding anniversary," said Percy Schmeiser.
"What more of a gift could you receive?"