Profile: Rene Van Acker
Rene Van Acker was a participant or observer in the following events:
After Percy Schmeiser and Monsanto fail to reach an out-of-court settlement, Monsanto takes the 69-year-old canola farmer to court. Monsanto claims that in 1998, Schmeiser planted 1,030 acres with seed from his 1997 canola crop containing a gene or cell that was protected by Monsanto’s 1993 (see February 23, 1993) patent on glyphosate-resistant plants and that he did so without permission from Monsanto. The company further alleges that in doing so Schmeiser illegally used, reproduced, and created genes, cells, plants, and seeds containing the patent-protected genes and cells. According to Monsanto, it is of no consequence how the gene arrived in Schmeiser’s field; his mere planting of the gene constitutes infringement. The company is suing for the $15 CAD/acre technology fee that other farmers using the seed are required to pay (A total of $15,450 CAD), the profits resulting from Schmeiser’s 1998 crop ($105,000 CAD, according to Monsanto), interest, exemplary damages ($25,000 CAD), and court costs. [Toronto Star, 6/3/2000; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/6/2000; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/21/2000] Terry Zakreski, Schmeiser’s attorney, does not deny that the some of the canola plants in Schmeiser’s 1998 crop contained Monsanto’s patent-protected Roundup-resistant gene. However, he rejects Monsanto’s claim that Schmeiser infringed on the company’s patent when he planted the crop since the presence of Monsanto’s Roundup Resistance canola was not a result of any deliberate action on the part of Schmeiser. The defense suggests that Monsanto’s patented-gene arrived on Schmeiser’s property by way of pollination or wind-blown seed. [Alberta Report, 9/6/1999]
Plaintiff Argument--Tests show high percentage of Roundup in sample taken from Schmeiser's 1997 crop - In spite of the fact that Monsanto’s argument does not hinge in anyway on how its Roundup Ready Canola came to grow on Schmeiser’s fields, it nonetheless attempts to make the case that the alleged high percentage of Roundup-resistant canola in Schmeiser’s 1997 crop was too high to have resulted solely from cross-pollination or wind-blown seed as Schmeiser claims. As evidence of this, Monsanto cites tests (see Fall 1997)
(see January 24, 2000) performed on plant samples taken in August of that year by Wayne Derbyshire (see August 18, 1997). Those tests found that the samples contained a very high percentage (more than 90 percent) of seeds containing the patented genes. Monsanto also introduces as evidence, tests performed on seeds given to Monsanto by Humboldt Flour Mills (see Between April 24 and April 28, 1998), the company that had inoculated Schmeiser’s seeds prior to the 1998 planting season. Tests later performed on those seeds found that 95 to 98 percent of them contained Monsanto’s patented gene (see April 2000; (August 26, 1999)). [Toronto Star, 6/6/2000; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/6/2000]
Plaintiff Argument--Tests show high percentage of Roundup in Schmeiser's 1998 crop - Monsanto also presents evidence aimed at demonstrating that Schmeiser’s 1998 crop consisted almost entirely of plants containing Monsanto’s patented Roundup-resistant gene. As evidence, it cites tests performed on samples that were taken from Percy’s crop in the summer of 1998 (see August 12, 1998). The tests done by Aaron Mitchell of Monsanto on these samples indicated that between 92 and 97 percent of the seeds in the samples were resistant to Roundup (see January 1999). [Toronto Star, 6/6/2000; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/6/2000]
Plaintiff Argument--Schmeiser used Roundup on his 1998 crop - In an effort to prove that Schmeiser’s 1998 crop consisted mostly of Roundup Ready Canola and that Schmeiser sought to take advantage of its resistance to the herbicide, Monsanto cites the testimony of Wesley Niebrugge, a farmer and employee of the Esso bulk dealership in Bruno. Niebrugge claims that in 1997 and 1998 Schmeiser’s farm hand Carlyle Moritz told him that Schmeiser had sprayed his fields with Roundup after having seeded his fields with Roundup Ready Canola. Monsanto argues that in spite of Schmeiser’s claims that he did not use Roundup on his crops in 1998, there is no evidence that he used Muster and Assure herbicides as claimed. Furthermore, Monsanto provides evidence that Schmeiser purchased 720 liters of Roundup in 1998. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/17/2000]
Plaintiff Argument--Roundup Ready Canola presence in Schmeiser's fields cannot be explained by windblown seed - Monsanto also argues that seed blown off the top of passing grain trucks could not have been responsible for the Roundup-resistant canola plants that Schmeiser found in his field more than 100 feet away from the road in 1997 (see Summer 1997). As evidence, Monsanto cites the testimony of Barry Hertz, a mechanical engineer hired by Monsanto because of his expertise in road vehicle aerodynamics. Hertz tells the court that according to his own calculations, canola seed blown off the top of a moving grain truck would fly no more than 8.8 meters from the road. His calculations are based on the weather conditions recorded at the Saskatoon airport in October and May of 1996, 100 kilometers away from Schmeiser’s farm. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/9/2000; Canadian Press, 6/9/2000]
Plaintiff Argument--Schmeiser segregated his crop - Monsanto argues that Schmeiser segregated his crop when he chose to save and plant the seeds harvested from the same field where he knew Roundup Ready plants had grown. The company’s lawyer questions why he would have done so if he considered those plants to be a contaminant on his land. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/15/2000]
Defense Argument--Schmeiser did not undertake any deliberate action to obtain Monsanto's Roundup Ready Canola - According to Schmeiser, the presence of Monsanto’s patented gene in his crop was not a result of any deliberate action he took. Rather he suggests that his crop was likely contaminated with Monsanto’s genes from wind-blown pollen or seed.
Zakreski notes that there is no evidence whatsoever that Schmeiser illegally obtained Roundup Ready Canola seed. Monsanto has never identified anyone who may have sold Roundup Ready Canola seed to Schmeiser, and Schmeiser has never admitted to having acquired the seed. Monsanto employee Aaron Mitchell candidly testifies to this fact on the stand. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/9/2000; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/13/2000]
Percy Schmeiser’s field hand, Carlyle Moritz, testifies that swaths from a neighboring canola field planted with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola blew onto one of Schmeiser’s fields in 1996 (see Fall 1996). The swaths were subsequently picked up by a combine on Schmeiser’s fields and deposited in the grain bins on that field. The defense believes it is possible that some of the seed from that bin was used to plant Schmeiser’s 1997 crop. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 6 ]
Schmeiser recalls that in 1997 (see Summer 1997), after spraying Roundup in his ditches and around telephone poles adjacent to his canola field, approximately 60 percent of the canola plants in that area survived. Curious about the possibility that his canola plants may have developed a resistance to Roundup, he sprayed a trial strip about 100 feet wide in one of the fields that is next to the road. The total area of the strip was a “good three acres,” he says. As a result of the spraying, roughly 40 percent of the canola plants died. The surviving 60 percent were scattered in clumps and were mostly concentrated near the road. He believes that the uneven presence of clumps that were thicker closest to the road and thinner towards the center of the field is evidence that plants had been sown from seed coming from the direction of the road, probably from seed blown off passing grain trucks in late 1996.
Zakreski argues that Schmeiser’s plants may have been pollinated with pollen transported by wind or other means from a neighboring farm. He notes that Monsanto scientist Robert Horsch has acknowledged in court testimony that the company’s dominant Roundup-resistant gene would be present in any pollen from a Roundup Ready Canola plant and therefore could pollinate non-transgenic plants. Zakreski also cites the testimony of Monsanto witness Keith Downey that “one hungry bee” is capable of traveling a great distance. Even though Monsanto employee Aaron Mitchell testified that the closest field planted with Monsanto licensed Roundup Ready Canola seed was approximately five miles away, Zakreski notes that it is impossible to state for sure that someone was not illegally growing it closer. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/6/2000; Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 28 ; Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Percy Schmeiser, 3/29/2001, pp. 16 ]
Schmeiser’s neighbor Elmer Borstmeyer testifies that he grew Roundup Ready Canola under agreement for four years beginning in 1996 and that he drove his truck by four of Schmeiser’s fields after harvest. He recalls that on one or two of his trips, the tarp was loose, and he believes he lost a lot of canola seed. “The tarp acted like a cyclone,” he said. “I lost some seed. That’s for sure”
(see Fall 1996). [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/16/2000; Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Percy Schmeiser, 3/29/2001, pp. 50 ]
Schmeiser’s lawyer cites other cases where farmers’ fields have been contaminated with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola, including farmers Charles Boser (see Summer 1999) and Louis Gerwing (see Summer 1999). He also notes that just a few weeks before, Canadian canola seeds sold to Europe by Advanta Canada were discovered to have been contaminated with a small percentage of genetically modified (GM) seeds (see May 2000). [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/16/2000]
Zakreski also addresses the various tests that were conducted on samples taken from Schmeiser’s 1997 and 1998 crops. Monsanto had used some of the tests as evidence to argue that more than 90 percent of the plants in some of Schmeiser’s fields contained Monsanto’s patented gene. Of the samples that were taken by Wayne Derbyshire in 1997 (see August 18, 1997) and used as the basis for two grow-out tests (see Fall 1997)
(see January 24, 2000), and of the samples that were taken by Don Todd and James Vancha in 1998 (see August 12, 1998) and used for a grow-out test performed by Aaron Mitchell (see January 1999), Zakreski argues that they were all (1) taken illegally, and should not be admitted by the court; (2) taken using a methodology that was not intended to be representative of the fields from which they were taken; and (3) were not obtained, stored, or tested in a scientific manner or by independent parties. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000 ]
Of the samples that were handled by Aaron Mitchell before being sent to and tested by Keith Downey on January 24, 2000 (see January 24, 2000), Zakreski questions (1) why so many seeds were apparently missing from the coin envelopes; and (2) why there were cleaver seeds, debris, and cracked seeds present in this sample—presumed to have been taken directly from canola pods. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 18 ]
Zakreski also challenges the authenticity of seeds used in a grow-out test that was performed by Aaron Mitchell in January 1999 (see January 1999). He asks how it came to be that seeds Mitchell brought to Leon Perehudoff were clean when in fact the seeds in the original sample contained debris. Though Mitchell claims to have cleaned the seeds by hand in a matter of an hour, plant biologist Lyle Friesen, another witness, testifies that such a task should have taken “days” to do by hand. Zakreski also notes that is unclear why the seeds Mitchell planted enjoyed a 100 percent germination rate when Friesen and experts at Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis were able to get only about half their seeds—presumably taken the same day as Mitchell’s seeds—to grow. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 23-25 ]
Additionally, Zakreski questions the authenticity of the seed samples that Monsanto obtained from Humboldt Flour Mills (see Between April 24 and April 28, 1998). The seeds tested by Monsanto had apparently been cleaned, when in fact the seeds supplied to the mill by Schmeiser (see April 24, 1998) were bin-run seeds full of chaff. No evidence is provided by the plaintiff to explain how the seeds cleaned themselves. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 19 ]
Defense Argument--One must use a patented invention for there to be infringement - Zakreski argues that for a patent infringement to occur, one must use the invention. His argument can be summarized as thus: (1) Monsanto has a patent on a gene, not a plant; (2) it is not a patent infringement to merely possess a patented invention, one must either use, or intend to use, the patented invention in order for there to be an infringement; (3) the act of growing a plant that contains the patented gene does not imply the use of that gene since that gene is not needed for the plant to grow; (4) the use of a patented invention necessarily entails that the “object,” or “essence,” of a patent be utilized, which in this case is a cell’s resistance to Roundup; (5) to use Monsanto’s invention, one must therefore either use, or intend to use, Roundup on one’s crop; and (6) because Schmeiser did not use Roundup on his crop, he did not infringe on Monsanto’s patent. The evidence Zakreski provides to support this argument can be summarized as follows: (a) there was no motive for Schmeiser to acquire and use Monsanto’s patented technology; (b) Schmeiser did not attempt to segregate seed known to be Roundup-resistant from the rest of his seed and therefore had no intention of using the properties of Monsanto’s patented gene; and (c) Schmeiser’s 1998 crop was a mixture of Roundup-resistant and non-resistant canola plants and therefore Schmeiser derived no benefit from Monsanto’s technology; and (d) Schmeiser did not, in fact, use Roundup on his 1998 crop.
Using Roundup Ready Canola would have made it impossible for Schmeiser to grow canola back-to-back, his preferred method of growing canola (see 1994-1998). [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 2-3 ]
The only benefit of using Roundup Ready Canola is that it allows one to spray Roundup herbicide on one’s crop. Roundup can only be applied after the weeds have germinated and there is weed foliage to spray. Schmeiser prefers not to spray weeds in his crop at this late stage because it would allow the weeds to use much of the soil’s moisture that would otherwise be available to the crop. Instead, he uses products that can be incorporated into the soil, or that kill weeds as they germinate (see 1994-1998). Furthermore, Schmeiser notes that Roundup is thought to leave a residue in the soil that kills mycorrhiza, a beneficial fungus that helps plants absorb nutrients in the soil. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 3 ]
Schmeiser prefers to save his seeds rather then buy new seeds each year, which he considers to be an unnecessary expense. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 2 ]
There was nothing wrong with Schmeiser’s seed stock that would have warranted interest in acquiring new seed. Schmeiser’s crops have performed much better than others in the area and are relatively free of common diseases that affect canola. Schmeiser has never had to file an insurance claim for his crop and because of this he receives a discount on his crop insurance premium. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 2 ]
Zakreski notes that in 1997, Schmeiser made no attempt to segregate the Roundup-resistant plants from the non-resistant plants in his fields. His farmhand, Carlyle Moritz, saved the seed from both the area where Roundup-resistant crop was known to have grown and other areas where these plants were not known to have grown (see Fall 1997). In spring 1998, these seeds were combined with bin-run seeds from previous years to sow Schmeiser’s canola crop (see Spring 1998). [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 11 ]
Schmeiser’s attorney argues that Schmeiser had nothing to gain in planting a mixed crop of Roundup-resistant and non-resistant canola plants. “The advantage in growing Roundup Ready Canola is that a grower may spray in-crop with Roundup and achieve broad spectrum weed control. If a grower plants a crop which is a mixture of Roundup Ready and Roundup susceptible canola, he cannot spray in-crop with Roundup. To do so would be suicide.” [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 28-29 ]
Schmeiser says that in 1998 the herbicides he used on his crops were the brand-names Muster and Assure. It would have made no sense, Zakreski argues, for Schmeiser to have knowingly planted Roundup Ready Canola. “It would make no sense if he knowingly proceeded to seed Roundup Ready Canola and not use Roundup,” notes Zakreski. [Leader Post (Regina, Saskatchewan), 6/13/2000] Schmeiser, however, as noted by the plaintiff, was unable to produce receipts showing he had used Muster and Assure on his canola. He explains that the Esso bulk dealership where he lives changed hands after 1998 and the new owners were unable to locate the receipts. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/15/2000]
Weed ecology expert Rene Van Acker testifies that the test results from Manitoba (which identified the presence of non-resistant canola plants in a sample taken from Schmeiser’s fields) (see (August 26, 1999)) prove that Schmeiser did not spray his fields with Roundup. If he had sprayed his fields, he would have killed much of his crop. “It would make no sense for a producer to sow Roundup Ready Canola and not use Roundup,” Van Acker recently wrote in a report requested by the defense. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/17/2000]
While Schmeiser did purchase 720 liters of Roundup in 1998, as noted by the plaintiff, Schmeiser says that he used this quantity of Roundup to clear his fields before spring planting and also to clear the weeds in the roadside ditches and around telephone poles. Schmeiser testifies that he would have used 515 liters of the herbicide to chem fallow his 1,030 acres leaving 205 liters for the ditches and right-of-ways. Zakreski’s final brief includes a table depicting Schmeiser’s use of the chemical in 1996, 1997, and 1998, demonstrating that the amount of Roundup used in 1998 was entirely consistent with the previous two years. Additionally, Schmeiser explains that if he had planted 100 percent Roundup Ready Canola that year, following Monsanto’s recommended application rate of 1 liter/acre, he would have needed an additional 1,000 liters, a claim that not one of Monsanto’s witnesses attempts to challenge. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 13 ]
Defense Argument--Monsanto's patent does not confer property rights - Another argument advanced by Schmeiser’s attorney is that because Monsanto’s patent does not confer ownership rights of the gene to the company, only intellectual property rights, the insertion of that gene into someone’s plant cannot possibly make that plant property of Monsanto. If the pollen produced by a Roundup Ready Canola plant fertilizes a non-transgenic plant owned by another farmer, Monsanto can claim no property rights to the plant’s offspring. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 38-39 ]
In support of this argument, Zakreski cites the similarity of this case to “stray bulls” cases in which the owners of cows impregnated by stray bulls owned by someone else have successfully sued for damages on the basis that early breading stunted the growth of their cows. In no such cases, notes Zakreski, has an owner of a stray bull attempted to claim any rights to the stray bull’s offspring. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 38-39 ]
Zakreski also states that the law of admixture applies to this case. The premise of that law is as follows: “… where a man willfully causes or allows property of another to inter-mix with his own without the other’s knowledge or consent, the whole belongs to the latter…”. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 38-39 ]
Defense Argument--Monsanto waved its patent rights when it released its invention unconfined into the environment - The defense also argues that Monsanto waived the patent rights on its invention when it failed to control the spread of its invention after it was released into the environment unconfined. The lawyer writes: “Had [Monsanto] maintained control over its invention, it may have maintained its exclusive rights. However, inventions do not usually spread themselves around. They do not normally replicate and invade the property and lands of others. Ever since regulatory approval for this invention was given, it has been released unconfined into the environment. Mr. Schmeiser has produced ample evidence of just how extensive the release is in the Rural Municipality of Bayne, where he farms. Any exclusive rights Monsanto may have had to its invention were lost when it lost control over the spread of its invention. Surely, the exclusive right to possess such an invention cannot be maintained if the spread of the invention cannot be controlled. The unconfined and uncontrolled release into the environment is an act by Monsanto completely inconsistent with its exclusive rights. It cannot on the one hand unleash self-propagating matter uncontrolled into the environment and then claim exclusively wherever it invades. It can, by this, be taken by its conduct to have waived its statutory rights.” Zakreski warns that giving Monsanto property rights to any and all genes or plants that result from the uncontrolled replication of its invention could potentially cause all Canadian canola farmers to lose their right to save and replant seed. “It can never be said with certainty that Monsanto’s gene will not soon be present on any canola field in western Canada. Accordingly, no farmer who saves and re-uses his seeds can be sure the Monsanto gene is not present in his seed supply.” Zakreski suggests: “Perhaps this is a benefit that Monsanto hoped to achieve by releasing their product into the environment without any control.” [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 39-41 ; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/22/2000] As evidence that Monsanto failed to control the spread of its invention, Schmeiser spends several hours showing the courtroom pictures he took in the vicinity where he lives of volunteer Roundup-resistant canola plants growing in ditches, flower beds, cemeteries, and roadways. He explains how he sprayed the plants with Roundup and then returned to see if they had survived. [Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 6/14/2000]
Defense Argument--Monsanto's patent is invalid; Monsanto's intellectual rights are protected under the Plant Breeders' Rights Act - Zakreski argues that a gene is “not the proper subject matter for a patent” and therefore the patent “should be declared invalid.” In support of this claim, he cites a federal appeals court’s 1998 decision in the case Harvard College v. Canada (Commissioner of Patents). In that case, the judges ruled that “A complex life form does not fit within the current parameters of the Patent Act… .” Zakreski further argues that there already is legislation—the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act—that protects the intellectual property rights of those who develop new plant varieties. He notes that unlike the Patent Act, the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act explicitly preserves farmers’ rights to save and re-plant their seed. [Federal Court of Canada, 6/22/2000, pp. 43 ]
A study conducted by three University of Manitoba biologists finds that contamination of Pedigreed canola seed with seeds containing transgenic genes is widespread. In the study, seed was collected from several pedigreed seed lots that were supposed to be free of genetically altered genes that make plants herbicide-resistant. The seeds were used to plant 33 fields, which were then sprayed with Roundup, Liberty, and the Smart-trait herbicide. After the herbicide application, only one field contained no survivors. Of the 27 seedlots, 14 had contamination levels exceeding 0.25 percent and therefore failed the 99.75 percent cultivar purity guideline for certified canola seed. For three of the seedlots, contamination levels were higher than 2.0 percent. “That means one wrong seed in 400, if a farmer is seeding between 100 and 120 seeds per square yard. That means you would have a Roundup-resistant plant every couple of square yards,” explains plant biologist Lyle Friesen. “In a less competitive crop where you can mix products like 2,4-D or MCPA, that becomes a real problem and the volunteers set seed and become a real problem for next year.” Friesen tells the Manitoba Co-operator that, as far as canola is concerned, the “genie may be out of the bottle.” [Manitoba Co-operator, 8/1/2002; Friesen, Nelson, and van Acker, 2003]
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