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12 Jun, 2013 22:49

Monsanto hit with class action lawsuits in mystery GMO wheat case

Monsanto hit with class action lawsuits in mystery GMO wheat case

American Farmers have launched two class action lawsuits against biotech giant Monsanto following the discovery of unapproved genetically modified wheat growing in the Pacific Northwest. According to farmers, the company’s negligence has ruined sales.

Though the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has never approved either the growing or sale of GMO wheat in the US, the agency began investigating its existence when an Oregon farmer found wheat growing in his fields that was resistant to Monsanto’s patented Roundup pesticide, known by its scientific classification as glyphosate.

That farmer sent samples of the Roundup-resistant wheat to Oregon State University, which conducted tests on them. OSU then contacted the USDA, which subsequently confirmed that the wheat was a GMO variety that Monsanto had been authorized to field test in 16 US states, including Oregon, from 1998 to 2005.

Surprisingly, the GMO wheat discovered in Oregon had somehow been growing over a decade after test crops should have been destroyed in 2001.

Though the scientific merits of the growing and consumption of GMO crops are still a source of contention, genetically modified wheat is a commercial liability for US farmers, who exported $8.1 billion worth of wheat in 2012 - nearly half of the total $17.9 billion US wheat crop.

Following the USDA’s confirmation that GMO wheat was present, Japan immediately canceled a 25,000-ton import of soft white wheat, and both South Korea and Europe announced more stringent testing of American wheat shipments for possible contamination.

According to the plaintiffs in lawsuits filed against the biotech giant, Monsanto should have been aware that open-air testing of transgenic wheat posed a risk to farmers.

"The announcement led to immediate concern that the development could disrupt exports of soft white wheat from the Pacific Northwest. An official with the Japanese Embassy stated that the country would cancel orders for Pacific Northwest soft white wheat because Japanese people were 'concerned about the discovery of unapproved wheat,'" according to the complaint.

AFP Photo / Robyn Beck

Though genetically modified crops such as corn, soy and canola are common in the US, GMO wheat differs in that it would be directly consumed by humans, rather than used for feed for livestock. Moreover, consumers in both Asia and Europe are sensitive to gene-altered foods, to the extent that both China and Hungary both recently destroyed US imports found to be genetically modified.

"Asian consumers are jittery about genetically modified food," said Abah Ofon, an analyst at Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore who spoke with Reuters.

"This is adding to concerns that already exist on quality and availability of food wheat globally," he added.

The incident is not the first time that the discovery of GMO crops have ruined export sales. In 2006, a large portion of the American long-grain rice crop was found to be contaminated by an experimental strain from Bayer CropScience, prompting import bans in Europe and Japan. That incident led to sharply lowered market prices, and the company eventually agreed in 2011 to pay $750 million to farmers as compensation.

The discovery of GMO seed in Oregon so many years after Monsanto’s field trials concluded has alarmed critics, who say that control measures on transgenic crops are dangerously insufficient. Prior analysis conducted on GMO canola, for example, has concluded that 83 per cent of wild canola plants growing along roadsides in North Dakota tested positive for genetic modification.

For its part, Monsanto has stated that its "own internal investigation has confirmed that it did not have any prior test site at the location where the material under investigation was reported to have been present.” In other words, neither government regulatory agencies nor the corporation can determine how GMO wheat found its way to the Oregon fields.

Farmers contend that Monsanto was aware of the "potential detrimental market effects arising from the use of such crops" but failed to enact safeguards.

"Due to Monsanto's wrongful conduct, soft white wheat destined for export markets for use in food products has been rejected for the purposes for which it was intended. Because scheduled shipments already have been postponed and canceled, the presence of genetically engineered wheat has detrimentally impacted the domestic and global wheat markets and damaged plaintiffs and other wheat farmers," states one complaint.

Plaintiffs now seek compensatory, exemplary and punitive damages for negligence, nuisance and product liability, according to Courthouse News. Farmers are also asking that Monsanto decontaminate farmland, equipment and storage facilities that may be tainted by GMO seed.