There are multiple reasons why so many people are up in arms against the rising prevalence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our crops. Aside from the debate as to whether consuming food that has been genetically modified is safe, the issue of contamination is potentially a very serious problem.
Recently, Monsanto has been prominent in the news and in the courts, often depicted as an evil corporation putting the health of the public at risk for the sake of profit. Now the company is facing several lawsuits from farmers who claim that they have suffered financial harm as a result of Monsanto’s genetically modified wheat having been found in a wheat field in Oregon. In late May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that a wheat farmer in Oregon had discovered Monsanto’s genetically modified wheat growing on his farm alongside his conventional wheat.
The announcement was followed by European and Asian buyers quickly backing out of buying American wheat when they heard of the contamination. Consumers in Europe and Asia have much stronger feelings against GMOs than American consumers. Both South Korea and Japan have suspended certain purchases of American wheat. The European Union has said it will increase the testing of produce coming in from the United States.
The announcement made by the Department of Agriculture and the ensuing loss of overseas buyers for American wheat has led to a series of lawsuits against Monsanto. Clarmar Farms, Inc., farmer Tom Stahl, and the Center for Food Safety have filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. The lawsuit is seeking class-action status on behalf of other farmers it alleges have been harmed by the lower wheat prices, which have resulted from overseas buyers backing out of buying American wheat.
A similar lawsuit was filed a few days prior by a wheat farmer in Kansas who alleges that he and other farmers have been financially harmed by lower wheat prices as a result of the discovery of Monsanto’s genetically modified wheat in American crops. Two other farmers have also filed similar lawsuits in federal court for the western district of Washington state.
The experimental wheat was initially developed by Monsanto in order to withstand treatments of its Roundup weed killer. The product was never commercialized though, due to widespread industry opposition. International buyers were already threatening to stop buying American wheat if the GMOs ever entered the marketplace. The decision to end attempts at commercializing the wheat was announced in 2004.
The field testing of the genetically modified wheat that Monsanto did in many states was supposed to have kept the experimental wheat from contaminating conventional wheat supplies.
Following the most recent onslaught of lawsuits, Monsanto has said that, when it ended testing on the genetically modified wheat, it ordered the wheat to be destroyed or shipped to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed storage facility in Colorado. Company officials have denied knowing how their wheat could have made its way into a wheat farm in Oregon.
Kyle McCain, an attorney for Monsanto, has called the lawsuits premature. He claims that the wheat “is limited to one field in Oregon, and no such wheat has entered the stream of commerce”. However, the genetically modified wheat has been found in one farm of conventional wheat, it takes no stretch of the imagination to think that the modified wheat has made its way, undetected, onto other farms and into the marketplace. When this possibility is taken into consideration, especially given the claims of GMOs’ potentially harmful effects, it is no wonder buyers overseas are hesitant to buy American wheat.
Monsanto insists that it followed “a government directed, rigorous, well-documented and audited” program when conducting experiments on the genetically modified wheat.
The lawsuit filed in Spokane, Washington, alleges that Monsanto’s failure to contain genetically modified wheat qualifies as “wrongful conduct” which has potentially contaminated “the entire wheat farming and production chain” and puts many wheat farmers at continued risk of harm by cross-pollination with and contamination of their crops. The lawsuit has not named a number for specific monetary damages, but it is seeking compensatory, as well as punitive damages. It also asks that Monsanto be made to decontaminate equipment, storage, and transportation facilities.
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