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The BBC's Ian Gunn reports
"This case is being closely watched by both sides of the international debate over GM organisms"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
GM firm sues Canadian farmer
field of GM crops
Can GM crops really be contained?
US biotechnology company Monsanto has taken a Canadian farmer to court, accusing him of illegally growing its genetically-modified (GM) crop.

The case could set legal precedents in the field of genetic modification - the technique of altering plant genes to make them resistant to pests and disease.

The defendant, Percy Schmeiser, owns a farm in Saskatchewan on the vast Canadian prairies.

Greenpeace activists uprooting GM crops in Britain
Greenpeace activists uprooting GM crops in Britain
In 1998, genetically-modified rape seed was found growing on his farm. He says he never planted it, never wanted it and suspects it blew onto his land uninvited.

BBC Vancouver correspondent Ian Gunn says this case is being closely watched by both sides of the international debate over GM organisms.

For supporters of GM technology, this is an important first step of genetic patent rights. For critics, the case might offer more evidence of the uncontrolled spread of GM crops. And for Canada it concerns the reputation of a major export.

'Out of control' seeds

Mr Schmeiser's lawyers say the case is evidence that GM crops are spreading unchecked across farmland.

"It was something that was unleashed into the environment and cannot be controlled," said Terry Zakreski, Mr Schmeiser's solicitor.

The defence will argue that Monsanto failed to instruct farmers properly on how to plant the genetically engineered rape seed and keep it from spreading to neighbouring fields.

Nature or nurture

As proceedings opened in the Canadian courtroom on Monday, Monsanto's lawyers said Mr Schmeiser's case was not about a few escaped plant seeds.

They say that 90% - more than 300 hectares - of the farmer's crop was grown from their GM product, and that nature simply cannot be blamed.

GM facts (source: Monsanto)
This year 20,000 farmers are using GM rape seed on about 2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) across Canada
About 70 million acres (28 million hectares) of genetically engineered plants were cultivated across the world in 1999
In the US, GM varieties account for about 25% of corn and 40% percent of soybeans
"Cross-pollination could not have caused this to happen. The crop is just too much," Monsanto lawyer Roger Hughes said in court on Monday.

Farmers who use the Monsanto product concerned can plant earlier and manage weeds more easily because the rape seed is engineered to survive powerful herbicides.

Experts disagree as to the likelihood of cross pollination is such cases. Some research has shown that rape seed flowers can spread their pollen over great distances by both wind and insects. Other research shows that most of the pollen falls to the ground within a few metres of the crop it comes from.

The UK case

The court proceedings come two weeks after news that farmers in the United Kingdom have unwittingly been growing GM rape seed for two years.

The crops were grown from seeds imported from Canada and taken from plants that had accidentally been exposed to GM material from nearby fields.

Despite the fact that it seems very unlikely that the Canadian seeds will affect native plants or insects in any noticeable way, the British Government has asked farmers to destroy the affected crop and the company that supplied the seeds is offering to compensate the farmers.

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See also:

18 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Polluted pollen's 'limited impact'
18 May 00 | UK
Anger over rogue GM crop
17 May 00 | UK
Alert over GM seeds
03 May 00 | Sci/Tech
US to strengthen bio-food rules
06 Apr 99 | Food under the microscope
Genetically-modified Q&A
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