Like thousands of others in southern Germany in the late 19th century, Karl and Anna Schmeiser worked long, hard days farming a baron’s vast tracts of land to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The baron owned the land, the draft animals, the equipment, and most of the crop—more or less as barons before him had since the Middle Ages. Also like thousands, Karl and Anna dreamed of a better life, and in 1890 they scraped together every last pfennig and left Germany forever, taking ship to the United States. Seeking cheap land and independence, they eventually moved northward to the prairies of western Canada, settling in Saskatchewan in 1904.
A century later, the land is no longer so cheap. The independence Karl and Anna found is threatened too, as grandson Percy Schmeiser and his wife Louise discovered in 1998. That’s when Monsanto Corporation sued them after their canola seed was found to contain the company’s patented, herbicide-resistant genes.* The case generated worldwide headlines, and an uncertain future for many farmers. Although the Schmeisers ultimately didn’t have to pay Monsanto, the courts did find them guilty of patent infringement. The fact that a transnational corporation would persecute small farmers is troubling to many, and shows the depth and breadth of a decades-long transformation: the steady erosion of farmers’ practice of developing and saving seeds. “Neither I nor my parents or grandparents ever envisioned farmers losing control of their seed,” Schmeiser says.
Moreover, that’s just the tip of the canola stalk. The privatization of seed is but one part of the steady consolidation of economic power throughout agriculture. Large agro-industrial and retail corporations have now secured toeholds in every phase of the farming cycle: they own seed and seed patents, they control processing facilities, they dominate the retail sector, and they have even moved into financing farmers’ operations. It’s as if the barons have...
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