Biotech Wheat Foes Ask For Lawsuit Regulation
By Curt Woodward
February 11, 2005
BISMARCK, N.D. - Seed companies should cover a farmer's lost profits if biotech wheat shows up where it isn't welcome, say producers who fear genetic contamination if the crop reaches North Dakota.
"At this point, farmers and elevators are basically the ones assuming all the risk," Emerado farmer Todd Leake told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
The panel is considering legislation that would require manufacturers to shoulder most of the liability for financial damages tied to the spread of biotech wheat.
Farmers could sue a seed producer for a wide range of economic losses, including lower market prices caused by lost exports. Biotech contamination of an organic wheat crop, for example, would make the organic crop worthless for its intended market.
Leake said the bill would shield farmers who often must assume liability to purchase biotech seed, and may not have insurance coverage for damage to a neighbor's fields.
"The whole issue of liability cannot be laid upon farmers," he said.
Some industry groups say the measure would halt the advance of technology that could cure common wheat diseases, or help develop varieties suited to North Dakota's extreme climate.
"We believe North Dakota wants to be a part of this future," said Terry Wanzek, president of the state Grain Growers Association. "We have no interest in discouraging responsible biotech companies from doing business in North Dakota."
Biotech crops are created when researchers alter a plant's genetic blueprint, usually to enhance a favorable characteristic such as resistance to disease or chemicals. The method is used on other commodities planted in the state, including corn, soybeans and canola.
Biotech wheat, however, has not reached the market. Last year, St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. shelved plans to introduce biotech hard red spring wheat because of widespread public resistance, particularly in Europe.
The bill debated Thursday, sponsored by Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, is similar to a measure defeated in the 2003 Legislature. The Agriculture Committee did not immediately act on the bill, which the Senate will vote on later.
John Olson, a Bismarck attorney and lobbyist for Monsanto, said Triplett's measure would establish a strict legal liability standard for biotech wheat that usually is applied only to "ultra-dangerous activities, or inherently dangerous products."
He said approving the bill would virtually guarantee that biotech companies will stay away from North Dakota.
"They will not develop and sell this technology. That's the way it will work, and I submit to you that the proponents of this bill know that," Olson said.
Tom Wiley, who raises wheat, corn and soybeans near Jamestown, said his family farm already has been harmed by biotech crops.
Wiley once grew soybeans to sell to Japan for human consumption - soybeans are often grown for animal feed - but had to abandon a major contract when biotech contamination was detected in his crop.
He told lawmakers that he has since given up on growing regular soybeans, because keeping them segregated from biotech beans was too difficult. He fears the same fate for wheat producers if biotech wheat hits the market, and said seed companies should bear responsibility.
"This does happen out in farm country and it's a real loss," Wiley said. "Suing your neighbors is not the answer in this situation."