September 24, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- NY Times:
A federal judge on Friday let proceed an antitrust case
that accused the Monsanto Company and other big agricultural
seed giants of conspiring to control the world's market
in genetically modified crops.
In a 13-page decision, Rodney W. Sippel, a federal
district judge in St. Louis, dismissed part of a class-action
lawsuit that was filed in 1999 by a group of farmers
who said they had suffered huge losses because of global
opposition to genetically modified crops.
But Judge Sippel allowed the antitrust portion of the
case to proceed, possibly setting the stage for a court
battle over whether the world's biggest producers of
agricultural seeds got together in the late 1990's to
fix prices and control the market for those valuable
biotechnology seeds, which are now planted on more than
100 million acres worldwide.
Judge Sippel denied an effort by the big seed companies
to dismiss the antitrust claims and end the possibility
of a trial.
While the judge has not yet ruled on whether to give
the case class-action status, his decision to allow
the antitrust case to move forward means thousands of
internal documents about how some of the world's biggest
biotechnology companies set their prices could be presented
Lawyers representing the farmers who filed the suit
have said in court that some documents show that Monsanto
and its competitors conspired to fix prices for years.
Monsanto and its co-defendants in the case, Bayer,
Syngenta and Pioneer, the world's biggest seed company,
have strongly denied any conspiracy took place.
Executives at Monsanto, which produces about 90 percent
of the world's biotechnology traits, the genes that
transform ordinary seeds into new types of crops, say
the company legally patented and licensed its traits
to other seed companies, including its three rivals
Today, both sides in the case claimed some victory
in the judge's decision.
Richard Lewis, a lawyer at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld
& Toll, which filed the class-action suit in 1999,
said today, "The farmers are pleased that this
challenge to the progress of the case has been defeated."
But executives at Monsanto, which is based in St. Louis,
said the judge's ruling significantly narrowed the scope
of the case, and that if the judge denied the class-action
status, the case would be even further diminished.
The 1999 lawsuit, which was filed by some of the nation's
most prominent antitrust lawyers, originally argued
that Monsanto, a pioneer in the development of biotechnology
crops, was at the center of a global conspiracy to control
the market for those crops.
The suit also accused Monsanto of rushing genetically
modified crops to market without properly testing them
and harming farmers who suffered crop losses when some
export markets began to shun biotechnology crops. Monsanto
executives say most of the original claims - including
those that said even farmers who used conventional seeds
were harmed by biotechnology crops - have been dismissed.
"The broad claims have been so significantly narrowed,
so it's clear that what they were charging about biotech
is not true," a spokesman for Monsanto, Bryan Hurley,
said. "This is absolutely an interim step and if
it moves forward we believe it's a case without merit
and we're confident the court will recognize that."
The other seed companies involved made similar statements.
"We don't think the case has any merit,"
said Doyle Karr, a spokesman at Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary
Bayer, which acquired Aventis CropScience in June 2002,
also dismissed the price-fixing accusations.
"We don't believe the claim against Bayer is valid,"
said Mark Ryan, a Bayer spokesman. "We'll defend
ourself vigorously in court against that claim."
But antitrust experts say a contentious antitrust court
battle is brewing.
"The judge is saying this antitrust case can go
forward," said Robert Mnookin, a professor at the
Harvard Law School. "He's refusing to throw out
the antitrust case because there's a material dispute
of fact over whether Monsanto and these other companies
conspired to fix prices."