There’s much aggro with agri-business in Percy Vs Goliath, the – surely no surprise – David and Goliath tale of a Sesketchewan farmer taking on the agri-biotech conglomerate Monsanto after the company accused him of patent infringement.
It’s a true story. In 1997 a pious, frugal, hard-working 70-ish farmer was suddenly landed with a lawsuit from Monsanto, who accused him of using their Roundup-tolerant genetically modified strain of canola seed (aka rapeseed) without paying for it. The thing is: Percy Schmeiser had never bought seed in his life. Instead he was a “saver”. He’d learnt from his father the practice of keeping seed from the season’s best plants, and he from his father before him, who had arrived in the New World from the Old jars of seeds ready to start a new life.
Roundup is a trade name for glyphosate, a systemic weedkiller. Thanks to the Roundup-tolerant strain of canola, farmers can spray their fields with the herbicide and everything dies… except the resistant crops.
Except Percy had never used Monsanto seed. Instead, most likely, genetically modified seed had got into his field from torn bag of seed in a passing truck leaking its contents, or cross pollination had occurred from other farms in the area – all Schmeiser’s neighbours bought Monsanto.
An Erin Brockovich one-person-against-the-behemoth struggle occurs, all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, ostensibly to determine Percy’s guilt, covertly to test Monsanto’s liability – after all their seed has contaminated his crop, if we’re seeing things from Percy’s point of view – but in the main to establish at the highest level that Monsanto can “own” nature like this.
King of New York was thirtysomething years ago but even so, at 77, Christopher Walken is still lithe and limber, looks in good shape, and brings a welcome dollop of charisma to a story that’s familiar in every aspect.
It’s a solid cast all round – Zach Braff as the smalltown lawyer representing Percy and in over his head; Christina Ricci as an environmental activist aware of the implications should Monsanto win the case; Martin Donovan on familiar bad-guy duty as the big hitter brought in by Monsanto to win the case in court; and Roberta Maxwell, less well known than the others but quietly impressive as Percy’s wife, confidante, wise counsel and rock.
The film is entirely on Percy’s side, though the screenplay makes a half-hearted attempt to suggest that GMOs aren’t all bad – how about crops designed for greater yields, one farmers asks in one of the public meetings Percy talks to after overcoming his reluctance to go public. He doesn’t get much of an answer.
It’s a fair question. What about crops engineered to make them drought or diseaes tolerant? That question is really about as far as the debate about the pros and cons of GMOs goes. As for legal complexity – what the case is really about – that, too, is stripped back to the point where it’s difficult to work out what’s really being decided. A moment on Wikipedia helps fill the gaps but a lot of it is quite technical and there was counter-suing going on as well – Schmeiser vs Monsanto followed Monsanto vs Schmeiser.
The writers are on the horns of a dilemma here. Leave all this stuff in and the film becomes unwieldy. Leave it out and there isn’t an awful lot left that isn’t already quite familiar.
It all comes down to Walken’s performance in the end, a gentle, non-showboating affair, carefully presenting Percy Schmeiser as a private man, a reluctant hero driven by a strong sense of right and wrong.
The real Percy Schmeiser died four days after the film first debuted in 2020. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified wheat preceded him, in 2004, when the company decided to stop pursuing its development.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023