Say No To GMOs! logo
March 2010 Updates

Bayer Ordered to Pay Farmer $1 Million Is Tab for Modified Rice

By Alison Sider
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
March 10, 2010

A jury in Woodruff County Circuit Court decided Monday evening that Bayer CropScience LP must pay more than $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Lenny Joe Kyle, a rice farmer, for losses he sustained when Bayer's experimental variety of genetically modified rice infiltrated the rice supply.

The jury awarded Kyle $532,643 in compensatory damages, and $500,000 in punitive damages. This is the third verdict against Bayer CropScience in rice lawsuits, but the first to award punitive damages.

"Obviously, we're satisfied that [the] jury paid careful attention and understood the facts and decided that exemplary, or punitive, damages were warranted over and above the compensation, and we think that's significant. Punitive damages in Arkansas are not easy to obtain," said Chuck Banks, an attorney for Kyle.

Riceland Foods, the Stuttgart-based cooperative, was also named as a defendant in the case and accused of withholding information about the contamination, but was not found to have caused any damage.

The Woodruff trial was the first Bayer rice lawsuit to be resolved in a state court. Last month, a federal jury in St. Louis awarded about $1.5 million to rice farmers in Arkansas and Mississippi, and farmers in Missouri were awarded $2 million in December. Three additional federal "bellwether cases," meant as test cases, are scheduled for later this year, involving farmers from Louisiana and Texas, as well as a rice exporter.

There are about 7,000 cases in multidistrict litigation in federal court in St. Louis, said Scott Perry, a Little Rock attorney and co-chairman of the plaintiffs executive committee, which was appointed by Judge Catherine Perry of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri to lead the plaintiffs' legal efforts.

Bayer CropScience, a German corporation, had been testing rice that had been genetically modified to tolerate the company's Liberty Link herbicide when traces of it were found in the U.S. rice supply in 2006. Though the USDA said at the time of the crop contamination that the rice variety posed no health or environmental risk, the rice had not yet been approved for consumption. Japan and the European Union immediately moved to restrict U.S. rice from crossing their borders when the contamination was announced in August 2006, leading to a plunge in rice prices and a drop in U.S. rice exports.

Banks said that Bayer was "negligent or careless" in following USDA testing guidelines and that, once the rice was contaminated, Bayer did not take appropriate steps to mitigate disruptions in the marketplace. Kyle's complaint, filed in August 2008, alleged that Bayer did not use tarps or safe zones to prevent contamination, did not take precautions with equipment, and allowed genetically modified rice to "commingle' with nongenetically modified rice in drying facilities.

The complaint also alleged that Bayer was aware or should have been aware of the contamination before the company reported it to the U.S. government on July 31, 2006.

"Bayer simply sat back, did nothing, and hoped the [genetically modified organism] contamination would not surface," the complaint said.

The jury found that Bayer should have known that its actions would result in damage and that it "continued with such conduct with malice or in reckless disregard of the consequences," and that Bayer "intentionally pursued a course of conduct for the purpose of causing damage," according to documents filed with the Woodruff County Circuit Court.

"It's these big companies walking over the farmers and getting away with the stuff that they did and we're tired of it, you know? We're finally going to stand up and do what we think is right," Kyle said Tuesday.

In a statement, Bayer said that it "disagrees" with the decision to award punitive and compensatory damages and will consider its legal options.

"Bayer CropScience maintains that it acted responsibly and appropriately at all times in the handling of its biotech rice," the statement said.

Bayer has filed a motion for a new trial in the first federal verdict, in which $2 million in damages were awarded to Missouri farmers, but is still considering its options in the second and third cases, said company spokesman Greg Coffey.

While most of the trial was focused on Bayer, Martin Phipps, a San Antonio attorney for the plaintiff, said that future trials might be different.

Bill Reed, the vice president for communications at Riceland, said that Riceland was a victim of the contamination and was "glad to have the opportunity to tell [its] story in court." "Riceland feels vindicated that the jury agreed that Riceland did not conceal information regarding the LibertyLink Rice 601 contamination," he said.

It is because Riceland Foods was included as a plaintiff that the case could be tried in Arkansas state court. Having a suit heard locally, by a jury selected from their communities, is beneficial for farmers, Phipps said.

"I think it should be in state court over federal court because the farmers have people on the jury that understand farming. They know what's happening, they know what it's like to be a farmer, they live in these communities and they know the impact of what happened," he said.

Banks said that his firm represents more than 300 farmers or farm entities in Arkansas. His next case against Bayer will begin in July in Desha County.

A case against Bayer with 12 plaintiffs is set to begin next week in Lonoke County Circuit Court, with opening arguments starting March 22. Scott Powell, an attorney for the Lonoke plaintiffs at the Birmingham, Ala.-based firm Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton said that his firm is representing almost 1,500 Arkansas farmers in cases against Bayer.


US Regulators Examine Competition in Agriculture

By Christopher Leonard
The Associated Press
March 12, 2010

ANKENY, Iowa - Federal officials concerned about how much control a few corporations have over the nation's food supply pledged Friday to begin a new era of antitrust enforcement, seeking to balance agricultural power between companies, farmers and consumers.

More than 650 farmers, slaughterhouse workers, lobbyists and executives gathered for a hearing on competition in agriculture that will help shape how the Obama administration redraws its antitrust policy after decades of industry consolidation.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, sitting side by side to open the hearing, called the workshop an unprecedented act of cooperation between their agencies.

"I think you will see an historic era of enforcement that will almost inevitably grow from the partnership that we have established," Holder said.

Some Obama administration officials have made clear their unease with increasing consolidation in agribusiness, with just handful of firms controlling the lion's share of biotech seeds as well as beef and poultry production. Those in the audience at the hearing paid keen attention, trying to discern just how aggressive the Obama administration will be.

For farmers, it is a long-overdue effort to constrain corporations like Monsanto Co., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Tyson Foods Inc., which producers say wield unprecedented power over food production. Industry groups worry that new laws or big antitrust lawsuits could punish companies in the midst of a recession and stifle innovation and investment.

Holder and Vilsack said it's not clear yet what actions will ultimately result from the five hearings, which will examine competition in the dairy, seed, meatpacking and crop production.

But they said it won't just be a series of lawsuits. They're looking at developing broad policies that would ensure big companies don't have too much sway over the prices they pay to farmers or charge to consumers.

"This is not just about farmers and ranchers," Vilsack said. "It's really about the survival of rural America. We've seen a significant decline in the number of farmers and ranchers and that translates into a significant decline in the number of people living in rural America."

The hearings play to a long-brewing sense of powerless and frustration in small towns that was on display Thursday night at a farmer's rally near the site of Friday's hearing. More than 200 people packed a small ballroom and chanted: "Bust up big ag" as speakers took to the podium and told stories.

"If we can't get justice from the Department of Justice, where are we going to get it?" asked Garry Klicker, a farmer from Bloomfield, Iowa, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd. "We need to get these (companies) off our backs."

Friday's discussions took a more measured tone, as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and others outlined their concerns about consolidation in the farm sector.

"Bigger isn't per se bad," Grassley said. "But it can lead to predatory business practices and behaviors and that's what we've got to be concerned about."

Friday's hearings were to focus on the seed industry, where Monsanto and DuPont control the market for genetically engineered traits that are inserted into the vast majority of U.S. crops. Farmers have complained that the lack of competition among biotech seed makers has led to a jump in seed prices, even as crop prices stagnate.

Monsanto said it was looking forward to stating its case that competition is vigorous in its business.

"The fight to win the farmer's business is intense and that has translated to not only more profitable choices for farmers over the past decade, but also more value for farmers," Jim Tobin, Monsanto's vice president of industry affairs, said in a statement.


Federal Judge Denies Temporary Ban on Monsanto Sugar Beets

By Jeffrey Tomich
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 17, 2010

Farmers can continue to grow Monsanto Co.'s genetically modified sugar beets, at least this year, after a federal judge in San Francisco refused to grant a ban proposed by environmental and food safety groups.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said in Tuesday's order that the damage from an injunction against planting and processing biotech sugar beets this spring would be "dramatic and widespread." But he didn't rule out ordering a permanent ban later this year.

Tuesday's order followed warnings from agriculture economists, farmers and the sugar beet industry, all of which predicted dire consequences if a ban was imposed.

Genetically modified sugar beets account for almost half of the nation's sugar supply, and prohibiting their use on such short notice may have led processing plants to shut down and caused a huge spike in prices for sugar and sweetened foods, the groups said.

Roundup Ready sugar beets, developed by Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, are genetically altered to withstand applications of glyphosate-based weed killers.

Roundup Ready sugar beets were planted commercially beginning in 2008 and now make up 95 percent of the nation's 1.2 million-acre crop.

The Washington-based Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs in the case sought a temporary ban on the beets in January, four months after the judge determined that regulators had erred in 2005 by approving their sale without a more exhaustive environmental review.

White acknowledged the risk that conventional sugar beet seed crops as well as table beets and Swiss chard could be contaminated by the biotech sugar beets. In fact, tiny biotech sugar beet plants were found last year in a pile of compost being sold at an Oregon nursery.

"That's the problem with genetically engineered crops - they inevitably get out," said Paul Achitoff, an Earthjustice attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case. "The more you use these crops the more risk there is of unanticipated contamination."

But, the judge said groups seeking the ban waited too long. The potential harm from a last-minute ban on the beets outweighed the possible damage caused by allowing them to be planted for another season.

White is scheduled to conduct a hearing on a proposed permanent ban on the sugar beets in July. And he warned growers and processors that Tuesday's ruling isn't necessarily indicative of how he'll rule then.

In fact, the judge urged growers "to take all efforts, going forward, to use conventional seed."

"This ruling provides clarity that farmers can plant Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2010," Steve Welker, Monsanto's sugarbeet business manager, said in a statement.

The sugar beet lawsuit follows a similar case involving genetically modified alfalfa. A federal appeals court banned any new planting of that crop until the USDA completes an environmental impact statement.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Monsanto Co.'s appeal of the alfalfa ban. Oral arguments are set for April 27 and a decision is expected by mid-year.


Bulgaria Puts Total Ban on GM Crops

Sofia News Agency
March 18, 2010

The Bulgarian Parliament has passed amendments to the GMO Act which mean that GM crops will not be allowed to be grown in the country.

After a number of days of debate Bulgaria's MPs finally passed the strongest possible amendments which although they do not include a total ban on GM crops, make it impossible for farmers to grow them commercially or in trials. Bulgaria has thus become the first country in Europe to introduce such stringent laws for all forms of GM crops.

The governing GERB party earlier removed the proposed 5 year GM crops moratorium proposal as they found that it was not necessary, considering the amendments proposed by rightist Blue Coalition MP Lachezar Toshev mean that farmers will never be given permission to plant them.

The long-debated articles 79 and 80 of the amended GMO Act were finally voted on and passed on Thursday: They ban the planting of GM crops within the boundaries of protected areas in the Protected Areas Act and within the protected areas of national ecological zone under the Biodiversity Law.

GM crops will not be allowed to be grown within 30 km of the protected areas, within 10km of bee hives or within 7 km of organic farmland - leading to an overall ban countrywide in practise.

"Environmentalists need not worry, I'm completely satisfied, because the law was made more rigorous, strengthening and protecting our traditional production and biodiversity," Toshev concluded after the Parliament vote.

Bulgaria has seen a month of protests by environmentalists since the first reading of the ammended GMO Act in Parliament, which led to the government making a last minute decision to support the full and complete strengthening of the law.


Colonialism Lives in Biotech Seed Proposal for Africa

By Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy
Des Moines Register
March 20, 2010

Bill Gates and the biotech juggernauts are doing their best to keep Africa dependent on imported technology, just like in the bad old days of colonialism. Gates, Monsanto and Pioneer have joined the long list of those believing they know best how the continent should grow its food. If the history of colonialism and subsequent development practice have taught us anything, it is that all interventions must strengthen resilience, encourage diversity and be locally appropriate. The biotech seed proposal for Africa fails on all three counts.

A Feb. 17 Des Moines Register article - "Pioneer, Gates to Give African Farmers Biotech Seed" - implies that the U.S. model of crop production will be exported to Africa nations by giving African farmers biotech seed. Exporting a model developed specifically for this country to the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is bad enough; worse, this model carries the high economic, environmental and social costs of producing only one or two crops on the same land year after year. It has caused enormous problems in the United States. Why would we want to export it?

Biotech corn is designed for monoculture production on large acreages like we have in the United States. African agriculture is overwhelmingly small scale (on farms of less than one acre) and diverse, allowing for a more diverse diet as well as greater overall output given the dependence on rain-fed agriculture and the very limited access to external expensive inputs, such as fertilizer.

It's often claimed that biotech seeds will yield larger crops. In fact, there is no evidence that crops from biotechnology seeds produce higher yields than do crops from conventionally bred seeds. Both Pioneer and Monsanto claim they will make the seeds available royalty-free. But nothing is said about providing seeds at cost. Nor is anything said about the biotech industry's stringent rules prohibiting saved seed. Biotech becomes a vehicle to introduce a need for a slew of expensive inputs, many of them fossil fuel-based, which African farmers have historically provided for themselves on-farm.

If Gates is going to be responsible for spending hundreds of millions on agriculture in Africa, we need his foundation to do better.

So, what are the alternatives to high input agriculture in Africa?

The Nigerian National Variety Release Committee is set to release improved corn varieties that address drought, low soil fertility, pests, diseases and parasitic weeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) developed these varieties in partnership with other African plant breeding programs in Nigeria. These include 13 open pollinated varieties with varying maturities and four hybrids with drought tolerance. They do not have the costs or legal hassles associated with genetic engineered varieties, and will be suited for small farmers.

Another example is the work of Pedro Sanchez, who spent his career developing low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programs for eastern and southern Africa and other food-deficit nations. Sanchez, the 2002 winner of the World Food Prize, has shown how biodiverse small farms are able to not only produce more local food but also build soil fertility and rural economies. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development - now endorsed by more than 50 countries - reached similar conclusions.

In the United States, the biotech industry has dictated the terms of the technology, trampling over the interests and concerns of farmers and the public alike. Biotech crops have resulted in fewer farmers growing more agricultural raw materials and less food, exactly the opposite of what is needed in Africa.

We suggest Gates support ongoing African research rather than import capital-intensive technology developed to address problems that are far from most Africans' concerns.

The privately patented and tightly controlled model epitomized by biotechnology is all wrong for the estimated 33 million small farms that make up 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's agriculture.

top of page