Farming News - Monsanto settles with wheat growers over GM contamination

Monsanto settles with wheat growers over GM contamination

13 Nov 2014
Frontdesk / Arable

On Wednesday, Monsanto announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with farmers who suffered when land in the Pacific Northwest was contaminated with unlicensed genetically modified (GM) wheat last year.


Monsanto has announced a settlement agreement with farmers whose businesses were affected by the discovery of unlicensed GM wheat in Oregon last year

In May 2013, GM wheat developed by Monsanto was discovered on farmland in Eastern Oregon. The wheat had been engineered to resist herbicide applications but was never approved for commercial cultivation and was last trialled eight years before its discovery.


The discovery led trade partners to suspend imports of US wheat until the US government was able to test for the GM wheat. Fearing that the suspensions would affect their businesses, several Oregon wheat growers took Monsanto to court in June 2013.


On Wednesday (12 November), Monsanto agreed to pay $2.13 million (£1.35m) into a settlement fund, which will go to farmers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho who sold soft white wheat between 30th May and 30th November 2013, albeit "without any admission of liability" for the contamination.


The Missouri-based agribusiness also agree to pay some of the plaintiffs' legal fees and $250,000 (£159,000) to wheat growers' associations, of which $100,000 will go to the National Wheat Foundation, and $50,000 each to the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, the Oregon Wheat Growers' League, and the Idaho Grain Producers’ Association.


Monsanto's chief litigation counsel Kyle McClain commented on Wednesday, "Rather than paying the costs of protracted litigation, this agreement puts that money to work in research and development efforts for the wheat industry, while providing a negotiated level of compensation for farmers with documented soft white wheat sales from May 30 to November 30, 2013. Resolution in this manner is reasonable and in the best interest of all of the parties."


Kim Stephens, one of the wheat farmers' legal representatives said, "We are pleased to end this litigation expeditiously with a reasonable recovery for our clients."


However, the settlement will not resolve pending claims from farmers who grew wheat other than the soft white, which was subjected to import embargos by trading partners in Asia. As a result of the settlement, three other class action lawsuits will be dismissed.


Commenting on the settlement, Dr Helen Wallace from GeneWatch UK said the case has implications for the UK and EU, where debates about the future direction of agriculture are ongoing, and where both sides hold entrenched views.


Dr Wallace said, "This incident shows how damaging GM contamination can be for farmers, causing millions of dollars of lost business. The UK Government should not be pushing to allow GM crops to be grown in England without considering the risks to conventional and organic markets.


"GM companies must be made strictly liable for damage, or farmers will risk expensive lawsuits and difficult negotiations every time there is contamination".


Monsanto still faces scrutiny from the United States Department of Agriculture, as its unlicensed wheat was found to have contaminated another field in September. This time, the wheat was found growing at a Montana State University research facility, though trials in the area had ended over ten years ago.  


Settlement comes as EU legislators negotiate nationalising GM decisions

The legal settlement in the States coincides with talks between the three legislating bodies of the European Union on steps to allow decisions on planting GM crops to be taken by individual Member States or regions.


Though the UK government is pro-GM, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales would likely not allow the crops on their territory in the event of a compromise agreement on the controversial crops.


According to the Soil Association, the experience from America, where rice and other crops have also been contaminated with unauthorised GM seeds, shows that once GM crops are used by a country, it becomes almost impossible to keep GM material out of farmers' seeds and the food supply chain.


Soil Association Policy Director Peter Melchett said late on Wednesday, "Although GM wheat has been available for US farmers to grow for nearly 15 years, they have refused to use it, because they know consumers do not want GM bread. That has not stopped them suffering from contamination by unauthorised GM seeds, and losing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of export sales.


"No one could possibly believe that GM crops would benefit English farmers when they see the extraordinary costs that GM brings in unwanted contamination. Only an ideological fixation on GM, disregarding economic realities and more modern and effective crop breeding technologies… can explain why some English farming organisations and politicians continue to promote this out of date and dangerous technology."

**Update 13/11/2014 14:40 - Soil Association position added**