Monsanto Faces Farmer’s Suit Over Engineered Wheat Crop

Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed company, was sued by a Kansas farmer who accused it of negligently releasing genetically altered wheat seed in the U.S. and damaging the market for his crop.

The modified strain was discovered on an 80-acre Oregon farm in April, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The lawsuit filed yesterday by Ernest Barnes of Morton County, Kansas, in federal court in Wichita could be the first of many against St. Louis-based Monsanto alleging contamination, his lawyers said in a statement.

“Monsanto has failed our nation’s wheat farmers,” his attorney Stephen Sussman, of Houston-based Sussman Godfrey LLP, said in yesterday’s statement. “Monsanto knew of the risks its genetically altered wheat posed and failed to protect farmers and their crops from those risks.”

After the USDA’s May 29 announcement that the Oregon wheat tested positive for herbicide resistance, Japan halted imports of western-white and feed wheat while South Korean millers suspended purchases of U.S. white wheat.

Bid prices for U.S. soft-white wheat in Portland, Oregon, usually published on the Agriculture Department’s website, aren’t available because exporters aren’t issuing bids for nearby delivery, according to the agency’s Portland Daily Grain Report issued today. The report didn’t specify whether that was related to the discovery of GM wheat in Oregon.

16 States

The USDA, in the May 29 statement, said Monsanto had been authorized to field-test the genetically modified seed, altered to resist the company’s Roundup herbicide, in 16 states from 1998 to 2005.

The Food and Drug Administration, in a 2004 “voluntary consultation,” determined the engineered wheat was as safe as unmodified varieties on the market, the USDA said in last week’s statement. Still, there are no genetically engineered wheat varieties approved for sale or in commercial production in the U.S. or elsewhere, the USDA said.

Tests of U.S. wheat imported by Japan, South Korea and the European Union have found no evidence of the unapproved gene-altered strain discovered in Oregon in April, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today.

Damages Sought

Barnes, who accused the company of negligence, gross negligence and creating a nuisance, is seeking at least $100,000, according to the complaint.

Mixing engineered wheat with unaltered wheat could make the grain unsaleable, he claimed, contending farmers like him are being injured as prices drop and markets previously open to their crops close.

The genetically engineered grain “has always been in the exclusive control, or should have been in the exclusive control, of Monsanto and its agents,” according to the complaint.

While some of that wheat was tested in Kansas, Barnes alleged, the company never disclosed that information to the state’s wheat farmers.

Genetically modified wheat seed can’t be completely removed from farming equipment and facilities, according to Barnes’s complaint, which asserts his damages aren’t limited to loss of market revenue.

“Plaintiffs are taking a wild swing that’s unlikely to connect,” Monsanto said today in an e-mailed statement responding to Barnes’s allegations. The company said it will fight the farmer’s claims.

Tractor-Chasing Lawyers

“Tractor-chasing lawyers have prematurely filed suit without any evidence of fault and in advance of the crop’s harvest,” David Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel, said in the statement. The program for “closing out” the wheat development plan was “rigorous, well-documented and audited,” according to the statement.

Monsanto said in a posting on its blog today that it gave the Agriculture Department and U.S. trading partners a method to distinguish the wheat trait developed to resist the company’s Roundup herbicide from varieties approved for planting and consumption.

“Our support is aimed at ensuring that the U.S. wheat industry and wheat farmers do not experience disruptions in exports,” Philip Miller, Monsanto’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said. The company continues to believe the Oregon case was an isolated incident, according to the post.

U.S. wheat futures contracts on the Chicago Board of Trade closed at $6.9375 per bushel on May 28, the day before the USDA announcement, and at $7.09 today.

A Bayer AG unit in 2011 agreed to pay $750 million to about 11,000 U.S. rice farmers who sued that company after crops in five U.S. states became tainted by a variety modified to resist that company’s Liberty-brand herbicide.

The case is Barnes v. Monsanto Co., 13-cv-01218, U.S. District Court, District of Kansas (Wichita).

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