Ken Bell, a rice grower in southwestern Missouri, remembers that 2006 was shaping up to be one of those years farmers only dare to dream about. "Not only was the market up," he told me, "but we had a good crop growing."
Then on August 18, a Friday, Bell's world collapsed. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that traces of genetically modified rice produced by Bayer CropScience, a division of the huge German drug and chemical company, had somehow escaped test plots and found their way into rice fields in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The GM crop was engineered to survive applications of Liberty Link, a Bayer herbicide. The USDA still does not know what caused the widespread contamination.
By the following Monday morning, worldwide markets for American long-grain rice had evaporated. Japan, Russia, Canada, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Iraq imposed restrictions on U.S. rice imports. The European Union demanded that all incoming U.S. rice be tested and certified as free of GM traits. Bell had incurred all of the up-front costs of what was to be that year's bumper harvest, but suddenly no one would buy it. He lost more than $1.9 million. "It went from a great year to a disaster," he said.
Last Friday, Bell and another Missouri farmer, John Hunter, had their day in federal court. A St. Louis jury found Bayer negligent and awarded them almost $2 million in compensatory damages (though it did not award punitive damages). For Bayer, it may be the first battle in a very long war. Some 3,000 rice producers have sued the company.
"I think that it was a very important verdict and a very positive verdict in that a federal jury found Bayer liable for the exact conduct they have been disclaiming for so long," said Adam Levitt of the Chicago law firm Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, in a phone interview. Levitt was one of the lawyers for the farmers. "They sent a clear message that Bayer is responsible for contaminating the United States rice supply. Bayer is clearly going to have to reap what they have sown, to use a very poor farming analogy."
Bayer did not return phone calls, but in an emailed statement the company said, "Bayer CropScience is pleased with the decision that punitive damages against the company are not warranted in the biotech rice trial." It added, "Bayer CropScience is disappointed in the previous award of compensatory damages in the trial and will be studying that decision in detail and considering its options."
This trial, the first of its kind in this country, should put all producers of GM seeds on notice. Noting that the 2006 incident shows how easily genetically engineered crops can spread, Ken Roseboro, editor and publisher of the Organic and Non-GMO Report, an environmental newsletter, said, "The fact that companies can be held liable for this type of thing is important. It should make them more rigorous."
According to Levitt, the farmers' lawyer, there is another take-home message. "When corners are cut and corporate greed takes precedence over best practices and due care, which is what the jury concluded happened here, the resulting impact on our hardworking farmers can be catastrophic."
When asked his reaction to hearing the verdict, Bell said, "I just felt like I had stood up for something I believed in, not only for myself, but for the American rice farmer."