Seed saving is an age-old tradition amongst farmers. Seeds are collected every harvest and saved for planting the following year. Some farmers also crossbreed different varieties to produce hybrid crops that flourish in the conditions that exist on that particular farm.
The "Seed Stewards" game illustrates the experience of 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who contends that genetically-modified seeds contaminated his fields. In 1998, Monsanto investigators found evidence that Schmeiser was illegally growing patented seeds in his fields. Schmeiser, a conventional canola farmer and seed saver, claimed that the patented "Round-Up Ready" seeds blew into his fields from the nearby road and a neighboring farm. He refused to pay the licensing fee. The company sued Schmeiser shortly thereafter to protect its patent.
A court battle went on for years. The judge ruled that it didn't matter how the seeds got into the field, all that mattered was that they were there and that Schmeiser knew or ought to have known that the crop was tolerant to Roundup. Schmeiser appealed twice and, in 2004, the case was heard by the Canadian Supreme Court. According to a variety of estimates, there are hundreds of cases similar to Schmeiser's around the world today. These courts are not bound by the Canadian Supreme Court's decision, but the verdict in Schmeiser's case was read carefully by the international community.
The hearing was also watched because it reckoned with profound, interconnected issues like:
- Can farmers' right to grow conventional or organic crops be protected? Can farmers continue to save their own seeds, as they have for centuries past?
- Can living organisms seeds, plants, cloned animals, human organs be owned and protected by corporate patents on intellectual property?
- Who owns "life?"
In a close 5-4 decision handed down on May 21, 2004, the court upheld the ruling that sided with Monsanto, holding that Schmeiser had illegally replanted Monsanto's seed. Schmeiser was relieved from paying the $200,000 Monsanto demanded as repayment for court costs and the profits that Schmeiser made by using Monsanto's seed. Read more about the verdict at Wired Magazine's website.