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USA Today, 9/24/2003

Monsanto, Bayer: Antitrust claims against seed producers can go forward

The antitrust portion of a lawsuit accusing Monsanto and some of its seed-marketing rivals of plotting to control genetically modified corn and soybean prices should be allowed to go forward, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel's 13-page decision this month threw out part of a 1999 lawsuit by a group of farmers who said they had suffered losses because of global resistance to genetically modified crops. But the judge said a claim alleging antitrust violations can proceed because "genuine disputes of material fact remain."

Victoria Nugent, a lawyer for the farmers, on Wednesday praised the ruling, calling it "a very good result for our clients."

Bryan Hurley, a Monsanto spokesman, said the company was pleased that the judge had narrowed the scope of the case, and was confident it would ultimately prevail against the antitrust claim.

Monsanto and others named in the case - Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont unit Pioneer Hi-Bred - have denied the farmers' claims that the companies plotted for years to fix prices. Casting the lawsuit as a political stunt, Monsanto has rejected claims that genetically modified seeds and foods are unsafe.

Bayer CropScience, a product of Bayer's acquisition of Aventis CropScience last year, is a relatively minor player in the lawsuit, named in just one of the case's nine counts, a spokeswoman said. If the case ever went to jurors, "we're quite confident that they will find no activities unwarranted from us," said Peg Cherny, vice president of government affairs and communications.

Messages left Wednesday seeking comment from Pioneer and Syngenta were not immediately returned.

The suit alleges that Monsanto, using its biotechnology patents, coordinated with the other accused biotech companies to fix prices and force farmers into using genetically engineered seed. The lawsuit also alleged there is "substantial uncertainty" as to whether the crops are safe.

In a ruling released Friday, Sippel rejected negligence and "public nuisance" claims by farmers who grew non-genetically modified corn and soybeans but who argued, among other things, that their crops were tainted by Monsanto's genetically modified seeds, and that the company wrongly hawked seeds critics called environmentally unfriendly.

Those farmers offered no proof of their claims, Sippel ruled.

The judge has yet to rule on whether the lawsuit should have class-action status. Such a declaration could expand the case to include more than 100,000 farmers, said Michael Hausfeld, another lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Corn and soybeans genetically designed to kill pests or withstand herbicides have become widely popular in the United States, but they've have met consumer resistance overseas. Genetic engineering involves splicing a single gene from one organism to another.

Biotech opponents have focused on persuading food makers not to buy genetically modified crops and getting governments to require the labeling of altered foods.