from the excellent Farm Power News: The DAILY BRIEF, Early Morning Edition, Thursday 21 December 2000
ALTERED CROPS SET OFF LEGAL FRENZY
Biotech crops may not have done much so far to help consumers, farmers or even investors. But they're causing quite a bit of excitement for lawyers. Here's a quick survey of some of the most significant legal actions to date. Thanks to Joe Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety for compiling much of this information.
a. The discovery that millions of bushels of corn have been tainted by StarLink, a variety unapproved for human consumption, is now reverberating in the legal arena. On Dec. 1, a lawsuit was filed by Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, a formidable class action law firm, on behalf of farmers who grew non-Starlink corn. The farmers say that they are having trouble selling their crop due to fears that it may be contaminated. They are seeking damages from Aventis, the French company that developed StarLink. And they're demanding that Aventis decontaminate their soil, farming equipment, storage equipment, harvest equipment, transportation facilities, grain elevators and non-Starlink seed supplies (http://www.cmht.com).
b. A coalition of sixteen attorneys general from farm states have teamed up to pressure Aventis to fully reimburse farmers and grain elevators for StarLink-related losses. Aventis so far has taken limited steps, such as offering to buy back the tainted crop at a twenty-five cent per bushel premium. The attorneys general are led by Tom Miller of Iowa, where half the corn crop may be contaminated. They are demanding that Aventis quickly assume full responsibility for the StarLink nightmare http://www.state.ia.us/government/ag/news.html
c. A group of farmers represented by Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll sued Monsanto and several other biotech companies in December 1999. The suit accuses the companies of forming an international cartel that fixed prices on biotech seeds. The farmers also claim that Monsanto didn't adequately test its genetically engineered crops before bringing them to market and lied about the results of the testing which it did perform. When international consumers rejected the crops, the farmers are suffered losses. During the pre-trial phase, Monsanto must document all aspects of its biotech agriculture business. The trial is set to start in July, 2001 http://www.cmht.com .
d. In 1998, the Monsanto Company sued Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser. The company claimed that Schmeiser had violated its patents by planting its Roundup Ready canola seeds, altered with a gene for herbicide resistance gene, without paying the company a technology fee. (Ever wonder what canola is? It's a cabbage-like plant, also known as rape, whose seeds are pressed into edible oil.) The company had sent private investigators to gather samples of Schmeiser's crop as evidence. Schmeiser denies any intent to grow Monsanto's transgenic canola. On the contrary, he blames Monsanto for contaminating the canola variety he has been developing for many years. According to Schmeiser, either seeds or pollen from Roundup Ready canola must have drifted on to his land.
The suit was heard by a judge last summer, and a judgment is now awaited. Meanwhile, Schmeiser has sued Monsanto in return, saying that the company defamed him, trespassed on his land, and adulterated his seeds with its genes http://www.motherjones.com/news_wire/schmeiser.html
e. In 1998, the Center for Food Safety, along with Greenpeace and other environmental and farm groups, filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to reverse the agency's approval of Bt crops - plant varieties that have beene engineered to make an insecticide derived from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. The chemical is produced in such quantity that it threatens to render pests resistant to the natural bacterium, which organic and other farmers rely on for insect control. The EPA is expected to issue updated approvals for Bt crops soon, and the lawsuit has now been withdrawn, with the intention of re-filing it (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/li.html).
f. In 1998, the Center for Food Safety, on behalf of a collection of scientists, religious leaders and consumer advocates, filed suit against the Food and Drug Administration, asserting that the FDA's permissive policy on genetically engineered foods violated several federal laws. The plaintiffs asked the FDA for compulsory labeling and safety testing of engineered foods. The suit was dismissed by the judge on Oct. 2, partially on the grounds that the FDA's 1992 statement on genetically engineered foods was not a binding policy at all. In other words, the United States Government has never had an official policy on transgenic foods. FDA is expected to announce new regulations soon (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/ li.html).
g. In 1997, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, a husband-and-wife team of reporters working for a Tampa, Florida TV station owned by the Fox network, filed a report about Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone, a biotech drug which, when injected into cows, forces them to produce more milk. In response to threats from Monsanto, the station ordered the reporters to tone down their story. When they refused to do so, they were fired. Wilson and Akre filed suit, and in August, a jury awarded $425,000 to Akre, saying that she should not have been fired. According to Wilson, the jury was unable to find in his favor because it had been given incorrect instructions by the judge in the case. Dueling appeals from Fox and Wilson are expected soon (http://www.foxbghsuit.com
h. GEAN Gleanings: How did StarLink happen? Insight into the genesis of the StarLink affair is available at the web site of the perpetrator, Aventis, where the StarLink Growers Guide is -inexplicably - still on line at http://www.us.cropscience.aventis.com/AventisUS/CropScience/stage/pdf/StarL inkGrowerGuide,pdf A hint is buried deep within the document, in vague and elliptical language, that StarLink is not intended to end up in the food system. Read it, and ask yourself whether you would have understood it if you were a corn grower.
i. Cheeto crisis: Tragedy looms for those Americans who depend on Cheetos as a staple food. The Frito-Lay company has announced that supply of the snack is down 10% due to production bottlenecks caused by testing for StarLink ("Testing Corn Affects Cheetos Supply," AP, Dec. 9).