Firm Blames Farmers, 'Act of God' for Rice Contamination

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The company that created the experimental variety of genetically engineered rice found this summer to have contaminated the U.S. rice supply contends that rice farmers and an "act of God" are to blame for the inadvertent release of the unapproved crop.

Those are among the assertions by Bayer CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by hundreds of farmers in Arkansas and Missouri.

The 30-page response offers the first clue to how the company plans to defend itself against the 15 class-action lawsuits filed by farmers, who allege that they stand to lose millions of dollars because of the contamination.

Lawyers for the farmers said they had expected the company to deny responsibility, but were offended by its attempt to blame farmers. The lawyers said their clients had no reason to suspect that the seeds they were planting in recent years were contaminated by Bayer's unapproved variety.

"The farmers are innocent victims," said Don Downing, a principal at Gray, Ritter & Graham PC, the St. Louis firm that filed the largest suit, in U.S. District Court in eastern Missouri.

Denying any culpability, the Bayer response variously blames the escape of its gene-altered variety of long-grain race, LL601, on "unavoidable circumstances which could not have been prevented by anyone"; "an act of God"; and farmers' "own negligence, carelessness, and/or comparative fault."

Asked how farmers were at fault, Bayer spokesman Greg Coffey said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Bayer conducted field tests of LL601 from 1999 to 2001 in Louisiana, then dropped the project without seeking government approval to market it. This year, LL601 was found to be widespread in U.S. long-grain rice, prompting Europe to cut off imports and throwing the rice futures market into turmoil.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating how the variety escaped from test plots into farmers' fields, where it was quietly amplified for years until its discovery. The seeds and plants of LL601 look virtually identical to those of the popular conventional variety with which they had become mixed, said Steve Linscombe, director of Louisiana State University's rice research station in Crowley.

The day the contamination was announced in August, Bayer asked the government to approve the variety. A decision is still pending. Meanwhile, lawsuits have been filed on behalf of about 300 rice farmers in the South.

The company's response to the largest of those suits asserts that Bayer's test plots were in full compliance with Agriculture Department rules. Critics of U.S. biotech regulations have said that, if true, that only proves the inadequacy of those rules and calls into question whether the department can fairly investigate the problem.

"It is unfortunate that Bayer, rather than accept responsibility for its actions, is instead trying to pin the blame on the American rice farmers, the very people most detrimentally affected by Bayer's conduct here," said Adam Levitt, a Chicago lawyer who has filed five class-action suits for rice farmers.

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