$750M Settlement Reached with U.S. Farmers over Genetically Modified Rice

A settlement of up to $750 million has been reached with the German conglomerate Bayer CropScience on behalf of U.S. rice farmers in a series of rice contamination lawsuits, according to Don Downing, an attorney with Gray, Ritter & Graham PC in St. Louis, Mo.

Downing led the negotiations with Bayer in the class action lawsuit. The settlement covers all U.S. long-grain rice producers, including farmers and crop share landlords, who planted rice between 2006 and 2010. It is not limited to those producers have already filed a lawsuit against Bayer, according to an announcement released by Gray, Ritter & Graham.

About 6,000 rice producers have filed claims against Bayer since the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August 2006 that trace amounts of the genetically modified Liberty Link rice were found in U.S. long-grain rice stocks, the Associated Press reported. Plaintiffs include farmers and others involved in rice production from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

The suits, some of which were consolidated in 2006 into multidistrict litigation, arise from the discovery that trace amounts of LLRICE 601, a genetically modified rice strain, had been detected in the U.S. rice supply, according to information released by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

LLRICE 601 is a rice seed developed by Bayer CropScience, which is resistant to a Bayer herbicide, Liberty Link. Although LLRICE 601 is now deregulated by the USDA, at the time of the contamination it was not approved for human consumption. Plaintiffs sought to recover damages for market losses and expenses they claim to have incurred because of the contamination.

The federal courts and state courts in Arkansas previously have ordered Bayer to pay damages to farmers in individual cases.

In August 2010, a jury in Desha County, Ark., ordered Bayer CropScience to pay six Arkansas rice farmers $940,000 for allowing genetically altered rice into the commercial market.

A Woodruff County, Ark., Circuit Court jury in March 2010 ordered Bayer to pay a rice farmer more than $1 million, and a federal court jury in St. Louis, Mo., in February 2010 ordered the German conglomerate to pay $1.5 million to farmers in Arkansas and Mississippi whose rice seed was contaminated by the genetically altered strain. A jury awarded about $2 million to two Missouri farmers in December 2009.

In April 2010, a jury in Lonoke County, Ark., ruled against Bayer in a case brought by a dozen Arkansas rice farmers, ordering the company to pay nearly $50 million for damages, according to information released by the Arkansas Rice Growers Association.

The current “settlement offer provides an opportunity for Bayer to compensate the thousands of Arkansas rice farmers who suffered significant financial losses because of the unintentional release of Bayer’s Liberty Link 601 genetically engineered rice into the commercial long-grain rice supply,” said Arkansas Rice Federation Executive Director Ben Noble in a statement released by that organization.

Representatives of USARice Federation, a national rice industry advocacy group, testified in several of the trials and filed “Friend of the Court” briefs detailing the relevant federal statue and regulations which are designed to protect U.S. agriculture from the unapproved release of experimental genetically engineered crops.

The federation, which also said it is pleased with the settlement, led the voluntary implementation of the rice industry’s Seed Plan, which it said has been successful in virtually eliminating the contaminating trait from the commercial long-grain rice supply.

USARice Federation reported that U.S. rice producers shipped 10.7 billion pounds of rice to domestic and export markets between August 2009 to July 2010.