“Seeds” playwright Annabel Soutar was surprised where her investigation into the legal battle between convicted canola patent infringer and Bruno, Sask., farmer Percy Schmeiser, and Monsanto Canada, took her.
“It intrigued me from the beginning,” Soutar said in a telephone interview Feb. 17, while waiting to catch a flight to Winnipeg where “Seeds,” starring Eric Peterson, is running at the Prairie Theatre Exchange until Feb. 28. “I always hope when I start my documentary journeys that I’ll be surprised because it means probably then the audience will be surprised as they watch it unfold on stage.”
“Seeds” is an investigative docudrama. The characters’ lines come verbatim from interviews and court transcripts of Schmeiser and others, including Monsanto Canada’s feisty spokesperson Trish Jordan.
The only “invented” narrative comes from Soutar’s character, which helps pull the audience through her exhaustive search for the truth. Is Schmeiser a thief or a hero? Is he David and Monsanto Goliath? The two-and-a-half-hour play reveals complex issues are nuanced, not black and white.
“Peoples’ words are very much like their fingerprints,” Soutar said “It reveals a lot about where we’re from and what we think and what we’re trying to do.”
In the late 1990s, Schmeiser multiplied some glyphosate (Roundup) resistant canola seed he discovered on his farm. According to Schmeiser, the seed must have blown onto his land. He denied buying it illegally from another farmer. He argued because the seeds were found on his farm, they belonged to him.
Monsanto has a patent on the gene that makes canola resistant to glyphosate. Those who buy the seed signed a technical-use agreement not to keep the progeny for seed or to sell it as seed. Tests revealed those genes were in Schmeiser ‘s fields and Monsanto accused him of patent infringement. Two lower courts agreed, as did the Supreme Court of Canada, but it was a five-to-four decision — proof the justices were themselves divided.
Monsanto is not the largest multinational genetically modified seed and chemical company, but seems to be the most reviled. Schmeiser’s fight made him into an international folk hero to many. It raised important questions around farmers’ traditional right to save seed and intellectual property laws that entitle developers payment for their innovations.
That was Soutar’s starting point. In the first act the playwright builds an alliance with Schmeiser. But Monsanto’s Jordan urges Soutar to dig deeper.
And she does.
It’s thought provoking and entertaining theatre. Actor Cary Lawrence’s portrayal of the often truculent Jordan, was bang on.
The portrayal of several scientists is less accurate, making one out to be supercilious and two others as beer-swilling goofballs.
Some audience members have complained the play doesn’t give those opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops enough weight, while others argue Monsanto’s perspective is downplayed.
“We have to remember the audience comes into the play with expectations and judgments already in their minds and often that influences how they see the portrayal of the characters,” Soutar said.
The play attracts people on both sides of the GM schism and challenges their assumptions.
“I like to engage with a diverse audience that has different opinions about things,” she added. “Very often we’ll have organic farmers and people from Monsanto in the same room. We’ll have academics and people directly involved in agriculture in the same room and the conversation that arises between them I think can be very dynamic.”
In an interview following the production Feb. 16 Jordan said she doesn’t agree with everything in the play, but is pleased Monsanto’s perspective is included. (Monsanto is sponsoring the actors’ accommodation during the play’s Winnipeg run.)
“For us it’s an opportunity to have a dialogue around issues that people don’t normally discuss,” she said. “As you know a lot of people have multiple misconceptions about Monsanto and who we are and what we do and so if this gives the opportunity for people to start talking about it and ask us questions and ask others about it then I think that’s a good thing.”
Organic farmer and inspector Stuart McMillan gave the play a thumbs up during a panel discussion hosted Feb. 18 by the Winnipeg Free Press news cafe.
Jordan, who initially brushed off Soutar’s interview request, is happy she relented.
“I think Trish is someone who is quite skeptical about the media in general and its capacity to tell balanced stories,” Soutar said. “I made the argument… I was going to write this play and if I didn’t have her testimony, or testimony from someone at Monsanto, I wouldn’t be able to achieve the balance that I sought.
“I think that argument touched her.”
Soutar said her relationship with Jordan has evolved over the last dozen years.
“We have our disagreements and she (Trish) knows I’m not there to promote the interests of Monsanto,” Soutar said. “We opened a dialogue for Monsanto so people can get to know them but also to vent some of the criticism about how they operate.”
The scientific consensus around the safety of GM food is stronger now than when the play was written, but the debate is more emotional and divisive than ever, she said.
“I think the activists have been more mobilized and that’s why I think companies like Monsanto feel having a forum for discussion like the play is necessary.”