In 1998, Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer on the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada received a letter from the agricultural biotech company Monsanto, claiming that he was growing its patented seeds in his fields without a license. Genetically modified (or GMO) seeds were relatively new to the market, and the company’s Roundup Ready canola was resistant to Roundup, the herbicide Monsanto also sold. The new seeds came with the promise of increased yields and reduced pesticide use.
But Schmeiser and his wife, Louise, were seed savers, and unlike more than hundreds of other farmers threatened with a corporate lawsuit, they didn’t settle. Instead, they fought for the right to grow their own seed, claiming that the genetic material from Monsanto found on their farm had blown there on the wind. Their court battle reached the Supreme Court of Canada, resulting in a split decision. It upheld Monsanto’s intellectual property rights requiring the Schmeisers to surrender their 50-year seed stock, but the court ruled that the family owed the company no damages.
The feature film, Percy vs. Goliath, released today in theaters and streaming, dramatizes the couple’s six-year struggle against the multinational corporation, which was purchased by Bayer in 2018. Academy Award-winning actor Christopher Walken plays the stoic Schmeiser (who passed away in October 2020), Roberta Maxwell co-stars as his tenacious wife, and Zach Braff plays their determined lawyer.
The movie opens with the ferocious windstorm that may have transported the GMO seeds to the Schmeisers’ farm and Percy and his farmhand race to save their own seeds before they blow away. The scene suggests that the epic force threatening the survival of family farmers is not nature itself, but the corporate control of agriculture. “These companies are going to swallow us up,” Percy says.
The filmmakers took some creative liberties in making Percy vs. Goliath, including the creation of a fictional anti-GMO activist played by Christina Ricci and a cameo by seed sovereignty activist Vandana Shiva. Although the question before the Canadian courts was limited to patent infringement, the scope of the film is sweeping, including GMO seed contamination, pesticide impacts on health and the environment, farm economies, and corporate ownership of living plant material.
Genetically engineered food crops, including corn, soybeans, potato, and papaya, have been deemed safe to eat by the scientific community but they remain controversial for many environmental advocates, who see them as enabling vast tracks of commodity monocrops, creating a pesticide treadmill caused by the growth of herbicide-resistant weeds, and increasing overall pesticide use around the world.
Meanwhile, the majority of the U.S. seed supply is controlled by just four companies, 90 percent of all canola seeds are now genetically modified, and cross-contamination threatens non-GMO and organic seed production in the U.S. For the last several years, Bayer has been mired in court cases over its herbicide dicamba and the ongoing lawsuits linking glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The film’s director, Clark Johnson, is widely known as an actor who played high-profile roles on The Wire and Homicide, and he recently directed the feature films S.W.A.T. and The Sentinel. He spoke to Civil Eats about what attracted him to this quiet story about a Canadian farmer and why the questions it raises about agriculture still resonate 20 years later.
You are best known for detective series and crime dramas. What drew you to this story, wherein nobody dies?
I do a lot of cop dramas and it’s fun to do big action movies, but the first film I directed—that got any notice—was Boycott (2001), which is about the birth of the civil rights movement. My next movie is my parents’ life story. We had to move to Canada when we were kids because my parents were involved in the movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And as a kid, [we] rode around in freedom rides and went to peace marches and stuff. My three siblings and I didn’t get to taste grape jelly or lettuce for the first few years of our childhood because of Cesar Chavez’s [boycotts]. So, that’s the kind of thing that I was raised with. But I was drawn to Percy’s story because I knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know what canola was.
So, how did a drama about agriculture lure major film stars like Christopher Walken, Zach Braff, and Christina Ricci?
Because it’s compelling and it’s a true story based on real characters. They weren’t going, “Oh, that guy that does all those cool cop dramas, he’s going to nail this canola movie.” The actors responded to the story and then they responded to how I was going to tell it.
The film’s storyline begins and ends with the Schmeisers’ legal battle with Monsanto between 1998 and 2004. Why do you think this family’s story is still relevant today?