Contaminated money

July 22, 2011

Agriculture

Mississippi rice farmers can start lining up for money from a recent $750-million, multi-state settlement with Bayer CropScience involving the accidental release of genetically modified rice in the U.S. food chain that negatively impacted sales to foreign markets.

But while the settlement is welcome relief, some rice producers are expressing regret that the case ever went to trial and the potential harm done to the relationship with such an important client as Bayer CropScience.

Mike Wagner, a rice farmer in Tallahatchie County and president of the Mississippi Rice Council, said farmers “don’t want to bite a hand that feeds it.”

“The average Mississippi and U.S. rice farmer deeply regrets that the contamination of our long grain rice with Bayer’s ‘Liberty Link’ technology occurred, and that it required legal action to address the problem,” Wagner said.

The lawsuit arose in 2006 when the German mega-company Bayer disclosed it had discovered a strain of its genetically modified rice, commonly referred to as “Liberty Link,” which was not approved for human consumption, in the U.S .food chain.

That scared off foreign consumers and throttled sales, particularly the European Union, which has strict restrictions on genetically modified commodities, farmers contended. It also depressed rice market prices.

Bayer CropScience maintained that the genetically modified rice was safe for human consumption, and no illnesses were reported. How the Liberty Link rice got in the food chain is still unknown.

Phone and email messages to Bayer asking how the rice got in the food chain and what measures the company has implemented to ensure it does not happen again were not returned by press time.

However, in a statement company spokesperson Greg Coffey said, “Although Bayer CropScience believes it acted responsibly in the handling of its biotech rice, the company considers it important to resolve the litigation so that it can move forward focused on its fundamental mission of providing innovative solutions to modern agriculture.”

“I think it’s a fair settlement,” said Don Downing, principal and shareholder with the St. Louis, Mo.-based law firm Gray, Ritter & Graham, P.C., who represented some of the rice farmers in the lawsuit. He added, “It was a long, hard-fought battle.”

Downing said he believed this July 1 settlement to be the largest ever in a case involving modified planting seed.

The settlement is open to all producers of long-grain rice from 2006-2010 in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas. Under the settlement, a farmer who planted 500 acres of long-grain rice every year from 2006 to 2010 would receive $155,000, or $310 per acre. In addition, any long-grain rice producers who planted an alternative crop due to the drop in foreign sales are in line for more money, though it does not specify how much they could receive.

How many Mississippi rice farmers are in line for money under the settlement is unknown, but according to Wagner more than 90 percent of rice farmers in the state grow long-grain rice.

No genetically modified rice is raised in Mississippi or anywhere else in the U.S., Wagner added.

From 2006-2010, Mississippi rice farmers planted a total of 1.165 million acres of rice. According to the latest figures from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, there were 341 rice farms in Mississippi in 2010 producing 20.02 million hundredweight of rice. The state’s 2010 crop rang in with a market value of $224 million, ranking it the sixth-largest agriculture commodity in the state.

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