News emerged this week about a possible settlement between Monsanto and the farmers whose wheat was allegedly contaminated by unauthorized genetically modified seeds produced by the biotech firm. Lawyers for a contingent of soft white wheat farmers in Kansas told a Kansas City federal judge that an agreement had been reached in a class-action lawsuit between Monsanto and a group of wheat farmers in Oregon, where “zombie” GMO wheat contaminated fields last year, throwing off wheat exports in the process.
Monsanto acknowledged that an “agreement in principle has been reached, but not finalized,” and that court-ordered mediation with the farmers continues, according to spokesperson Charla Lord. Details of the reported deal are still being kept private.
Some observers see the likely settlement as a “chink in the armor” of the biotech company.
“Monsanto never settles unless they’re seriously vulnerable, and the farmers and lawyers involved in this case should reject any settlement,” said Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now. “Contamination of farmers’ crops has been an integral part of Monsanto’s business plan, and these farmers need to gain strong legal protections from future contamination events, which are happening daily in farmers’ fields all over the world.”
The biotech brouhaha started in 2013, when an Oregon farmer noticed wheat growing in a fallow field. When he sprayed the suspicious wheat with the pesticide Roundup and checked back on the plants a while later, he was puzzled that the wheat hadn’t died. Monsanto has for years been developing a Roundup-resistant wheat seed, but it isn’t approved for commercial use. The genetically engineered wheat is one of the only commodity crops not authorized for sale or human consumption, though Monsanto has publicly stated its plans to continue researching ways to introduce G.E. wheat to the U.S. market.
Meanwhile, the zombie wheat case in Oregon spooked export markets, and GMO-wary Japan and South Korea halted U.S. wheat imports, causing a temporary price drop for farmers.
But even a temporary lull in the commodity market can devastate individual farmers. So last June the Oregon farmer, along with a farmer in Kansas, filed suits against Monsanto for negligence that resulted in loss of business. Several anti-GMO groups, including the Center for Food Safety, joined the suit.
“Monsanto has put our farmers’ wheat export market at grave risk. Billions of dollars, and our food supply, is at risk because of Monsanto’s negligence. They must be held accountable,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said last summer.
Monsanto contended that the case was an “isolated incident,” and a bullish Monsanto executive, Robert Fraley, responded to the suit in a strange way: by alleging that the unauthorized wheat appeared as the result of sabotage.
When news of a settlement surfaced this week, Monsanto spokesperson Lord didn’t say whether the agreement with the Oregon wheat farmers indicates that the company is taking some responsibility for the cross-contamination or whether it still thinks it was sabotage.
The company apparently hasn’t spoken with the Kansas plaintiffs in months.
“We have not been in any mediations or discussion with Monsanto since April,” Patrick Pendley, senior partner at Pendley Baudin & Coffin in Plaquemine, La., which represents the Kansas farmers, told the National Law Journal, adding that he hopes to convene with the firm’s attorneys in advance of a federal court hearing this coming Tuesday.
If the reports are true, this will be the second major Monsanto settlement this year. In July, the company was ordered to pay residents of Nitro, W.Va., $93 million for exposing them to dioxin from a nearby plant where it has produced the poison for more than a half century.
Murphy of Food Democracy Now believes that combined with the West Virginia settlement, the wheat case reveals “serious legal vulnerabilities” in Monsanto’s business model.
“With this lawsuit, the contamination of farmers’ crops with their patented GMO genes is finally being exposed as the real threat that GMOs are to modern food production and the financial liability that could bring Monsanto down,” he said.