WICHITA, KAS. — Kansas wheat farmer Ernest Barnes on June 3 filed a civil lawsuit against Monsanto Co. alleging “gross negligence” and other causes of action following recent reports of the discovery of unapproved bioengineered wheat in an 80-acre field in Oregon. Mr. Barnes is seeking compensation for damages caused by the discovery, which sent wheat export futures prices spiraling downward.
Susman Godfrey, along with co-counsel the Murray Law Firm and Goldman Phipps, P.L.L.C., filed the case in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas.
“Monsanto has failed our nation’s wheat farmers,” said Stephen Susman, Susman Godfrey’s lead attorney on the case. “We believe Monsanto knew of the risks its genetically altered wheat posed and failed to protect farmers and their crops from those risks.”
Since news of the discovery of the bioengineered wheat, Japan and South Korea have suspended some imports of American wheat, and the European Union, which imports more than 1 million tons of U.S. wheat a year, said it would ensure its “zero tolerance” policy against bioengineered crops was maintained. Kansas exports about 90% of its wheat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) on May 29 confirmed test results of plant samples from an Oregon farm indicated the presence of bioengineered glyphosate-resistant wheat plants. Further testing by U.S.D.A. laboratories indicated the presence of the same bioengineered glyphosate-resistant wheat variety that Monsanto was authorized to field test in 16 states from 1998 to 2005.
There are no bioengineered wheat varieties approved for sale or in commercial production in the United States or elsewhere at this time.
Responding to the lawsuit, Monsanto said the plaintiffs “are taking a wild swing that is unlikely to connect.”
“U.S.D.A. announced finding glyphosate-tolerant wheat in a few ‘volunteer’ plants in one field on one farm in Oregon,” Monsanto said. “This unexplained report and no more is the ostensible basis for a lawsuit arising from the first report of glyphosate-tolerant wheat in the nine years since cessation of Monsanto’s commercial wheat development program.”
Monsanto iterated that the U.S.D.A. has said the wheat crop is safe, that the F.D.A. confirmed food and feed safety in 2004, and that the U.S.D.A. has stated repeatedly that there is no indication that glyphosate-tolerant wheat has entered commerce.
“Tractor chasing lawyers have prematurely filed suit without any evidence of fault and in advance of the crop’s harvest,” said David Snively, executive vice-president and general counsel at Monsanto.
Monsanto said its process for closing out its original wheat development program “was government directed, rigorous, well-documented and audited.”
“Neither seed left in the soil or wheat pollen flow serve as a reasonable explanation of the U.S.D.A.’s reported detection,” the company said. “Moreover, researchers both in the public and private sectors acknowledge that the viability of wheat seed on average lasts 1 to 2 years in the soil. There is considerable reason to believe that the presence of glyphosate tolerance in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited. Given the care undertaken no legal liability exists and the company will present a vigorous defense.”
In a June 3 statement posted to its web site, Monsanto reiterated its full support to the U.S. wheat industry and regulatory authorities in the United States and wheat-importing countries following the reported detection of the original Roundup Ready wheat trait. The company said it has provided a validated testing method for the original Roundup Ready wheat trait to the U.S.D.A., and, more recently, to government regulators in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the European Union, as requested. The method will provide these governments with the opportunity “to precisely and accurately” test for the original Roundup Ready wheat trait and distinguish it from traits that already are approved and widely used in other crops, Monsanto said.
The company said the test, which was designed in line with rigorous global testing protocols, is more reliable than currently available tests designed for testing other crops since it pinpoints the specific trait in question. The company noted these existing testing technologies, such as PCR, strip tests or dip stick tests, are likely to provide misleading results if applied to wheat. The validated testing method is expected to further ensure confidence in testing resources available to these valuable export markets. The company said it would provide the validated method to other leading agriculture regulatory authorities as requested.
“We have cooperated with the U.S.D.A. and other regulatory authorities so that they can continue to have full confidence in U.S. wheat exports,” said Philip Miller, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Monsanto. “While the U.S.D.A. has noted that they have no evidence that the original Roundup Ready wheat trait has entered commerce, our support is aimed at ensuring that the U.S. wheat industry and wheat farmers do not experience disruptions in exports.”
Mr. Miller added Monsanto is interested in getting to the bottom of the reported detection.
“We’re prepared to provide any technical help that we can as this unusual and currently unexplained report raises important questions about the circumstance and source of the presence,” he said.