Percy Schmeiser is 83 years old now, nearly a decade removed from a Supreme Court of Canada decision that effectively ended his legal battle with biotechnology giant Monsanto. It was a fight that was tailor-made for publicity; a lone farmer from Bruno, Sask., taking on a multinational corporation over the issue of who really owned the canola seeds growing in his field.
Even though Schmeiser lost his fight with Monsanto, he has dedicated much of the ensuing decade to spreading awareness of what he sees as the many problems surrounding genetically modified foods, which have had their DNA altered to promote desirable traits such as resistance to insects or pesticides. In recognition of those efforts, the Canadian Health Food Association inducted Schmeiser into its Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Vancouver on April 12.
"It was a great honour," Schmeiser said.
The award, one of many he's won, came 17 years after the beginning of a saga that has made him a well-known name in the world of food research and genetic modification.
In 1997, Schmeiser discovered that some of his canola had survived after being sprayed by a herbicide that should have killed it. It turned out that herbicide-resistant canola seeds produced by Monsanto had somehow drifted onto his property. Schmeiser took advantage of what seemed like good fortune by spreading the genetically modified seeds the following crop season. The problem was that Monsanto required farmers using their patented seeds to pay a licensing fee and purchase new seeds every year; when Schmeiser refused to do either of those things, arguing that a company couldn't hold a patent on a life form, Monsanto sued him.
"To be able to go to a seed bank and put a patent on a gene that's always existed is wrong, and that's what happened," Schmeiser said.
Six years later, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Monsanto by finding that Schmeiser had infringed on the company's patent by knowingly using their seeds without paying the necessary fees or buying new product. It was a contentious decision that drew national and even international attention and was the subject of a play called Seeds, which recently ended a three-week run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
"Some of my family got to see it when it was in Calgary, but I didn't get to," Schmeiser, who's lived in Bruno his whole life, said.
The reason why he missed the play is because Schmeiser and his wife Louise were on a trip to Antarctica, the only continent they hadn't visited to that point. Schmeiser estimates he's visited at least 150 countries and can be on the road for up to 10 months a year. Many of his trips are at the invitation of universities, foundations and other groups invested in exploring the science of food.
As he tells it, Schmeiser isn't necessarily opposed to genetically modified foods of all kinds, but the absence of information about what is in the food people are eating. Schmeiser has traveled extensively with David Suzuki and recalled something Suzuki told him about the ever-changing understanding of genetically modified foods.
"In five years, what we're saying now will seem totally obsolete," Schmeiser remembered Suzuki saying.
Even though Schmeiser's fight on genetically modified foods has only been public since 1997, his exposure to chemicals and other farm implements goes back to his teenage years, when his father Charles was a dealer in chemicals in the post-war years. Schmeiser thinks that early education in the industry helped him later on during his legal dispute with Monsanto.
"If I did not have that background, I think it would have been altogether different," he said.
Although Schmeiser has decades of experience in farming and is invested in the minute details of the food industry, he rejects the notion that only farmers are interested in the evolution of food production.
"When I travel, people will sometimes say, 'It's a farmer's issue, it's not a consumer's issue.' Well, that's changing. The rank-and-file consumer wants to know what's in their food. That's where I see the biggest difference."
Even with that attitude, in Canada it can be difficult for consumers to know when they're eating genetically modified foods because there are no requirements to label food as modified.
On April 24, Vermont became the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods.
According to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, there are only a handful of genetically modified crops grown in Canada. Among those are corn and canola, the latter a major crop in the Humboldt area.
"I would say almost 100 per cent of the canola around here has been modified," Schmeiser said.
There is no real scientific consensus on the benefits or harm related to genetically modified foods, and that uncertainty means that consumers themselves will have to monitor developments as they come.
"I have found that for every scientist that supports me, there's one that disagrees with me," Schmeiser said. "There's such a division in this area."
One thing that seems clear is that Schmeiser won't be quite as active as he has been in the past. While he and his wife are in good health, the 83-year-old would like to spend more time with his 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
"We've given up a lot of family life," he said. "We're missing hockey games, football games, figure skating, graduations, birthday parties. It's come to a point where we have to ask ourselves, what's more important to do now while we still have a few years left?"
These days Schmeiser travels mostly to universities because he wants to make younger people aware of the issue. After all, it's they who will set and react to policy decades from now.
"I tell them 'there's so much on the Internet you can take a look at. Read that information and then decide for yourselves.' To me, that's important."