Mississippi is one of six states that produces the largest portion of commercial rice in the United States. In fact, Mississippi is in the top two states for rice production in the country.
In 2006, the rice industry took a massive hit when Bayer AG introduced a strand of genetically enhanced rice called GE Liberty Link rice 602. While the company said that this particular strand was never intended for commercial use, it was soon found in both U.S. rice as well as rice being exported from the country to areas around the world.
Upon the contamination being discovered, countries around the world begin banning the import of U.S. rice. Those countries incidentally included Japan, which is the largest importer of American rice. The uproar ultimately led to billions of dollars of rice unfit for exportation making prices drop and farmers footing much of the bill.
Since then, Bayer and U.S. rice growers have been involved in heavy litigation. During the arguments, farmers said rice prices fell 65 percent below the levels they were forecast to hit prior to the contamination. Bayer claimed that rice prices had initially fallen, then rebounded.
“Two-thousand six was a tough year for rice producers in Mississippi for many reasons,” said Justin Ferguson, region one manager for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. “That was a year when we saw production cost really begin to move upward with rice and when the contamination scare shut down exports, many Mississippi growers lost the ability to move their product. The entire rice industry really struggled that year.”
Earlier this summer, Bayer CropScience, the German biotech conglomerate, agreed to pay $750 million in damages to 11,000 rice farmers in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Missouri.
Under the terms, each farmer would receive about $310 per acre once the lump settlement is divided. Because half of U.S. grown rice is typically exported, farmers estimate they lost half their typical harvest value, between $800 and $1,200 per acre during the years they couldn't export at pre-2006 levels.
“This settlement provides a significant recovery to farmers and landlords damaged by Bayer’s conduct, and represents the culmination of over 4 1/2 years of hard fought litigation,” said William Chaney of Looper Reed & McGraw, one of the lead attorneys for the rice farmers spanning over six states from Texas to Mississippi. “Bayer denied liability and aggressively challenged the farmers’ damages, but juries consistently found Bayer liable for allowing the genetically modified rice to escape into commercial channels. Additionally, the liability was not restricted to Bayer CropScience, LP, but was assessed against Bayer AG and Bayer CropScience AG and other Bayer companies.”
Bayer had been experimenting with weed-resistant rice when the company's genetically engineered seeds inadvertently got mixed with commercial seed supplies there and were then transferred to thousands of farms around the country.
Bayer said their genetically modified strain of rice was safe for human consumption; however, it had not been tested or approved by the United States Department of Agriculture at that time.
“We are happy that Bayer has agreed to provide substantial compensation to the thousands of U.S. families that make their livelihood from rice farming,” Chaney said. “In the farming community, most people live by the principle that if you harm a neighbor, you make it right. After almost five years of litigation, Bayer has finally made an effort to make it right.”
The original deadline for growers to make a claim was set for Oct. 10. On Friday, that deadline was extended until Nov. 21. Producers who miss this deadline will be unable to recoup any losses caused by the contamination.