GM firms are sued for millions

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Top law firms in the United States and Britain are to launch a series of class actions next month in which they will demand "hundreds of millions of dollars" in damages from the principal companies involved in the production of genetically modified (GM) seeds and food crops.

Top law firms in the United States and Britain are to launch a series of class actions next month in which they will demand "hundreds of millions of dollars" in damages from the principal companies involved in the production of genetically modified (GM) seeds and food crops.

Targets of the actions, which are to be taken on behalf of farmers in the United States, the European Union, Central America and India, are likely to include Monsanto, Du Pont, AstraZeneca, Novartis and Agr-Evo.

In a private meeting in London this week, American lawyers and senior partners at the British law firm Mishcon de Reya discussed the action with representatives of the Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Christian Aid, the Confederation of European Small Farmers (CPE), individual farmers and farmers' organisations from the US, Panama, and India.

The first of the actions will be launched in US courts in mid-November. They will allege "anti-competitive behaviour" in the seed market, which is dominated by a small number of companies, in violation of "anti-trust" or monopoly laws. They will also cite "questionable corporate behaviour" in pushing forward the rapid introduction of GM foods in the absence of clear data to prove their safety.

"There is the question of whether there is a collusive aspect of the behaviour of the companies to co-ordinate a joint control of over the entirety of food production," said Michael Hausfeld of the Washington DC-based lawyers Cohen, Millstein, Hausfeld and Toll (CMHT), who was at the meeting.

"And there is the question of whether or not there was a concerted effort to knowingly but prematurely force the commercialisation of GM foods when there was information that the companies knew, or should have known, that the safety of the foods was inconclusive. This would include charges of possible undue influence on legislators and regulators," Mr Hausfeld said.

As well as seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, Mr Hausfeld indicated, his clients also wished to put the deployment of GM foods on hold until their safety was scientifically proven, and to establish legal liability where farmers were burdened with unmarketable crops that were either grown from GM seed or contaminated with GM material from neighbouring fields.

One key issue will be the principle, backed by the US government, that GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to non-GM foods and consequently do not need to be tested for their safety. The idea has now been challenged by numerous scientists who say that experiments that would justify the "substantial equivalence" of GM foods have not been done.

CMHT has participated in recent anti-trust actions that have won damages exceeding $1bn. These include a case brought against market makers on the Nasdaq stock exchange which won a record $1,027m (£622m) in damages. Another action, over price-fixing, is underway against the chemical companies Hoffman La Roche, Rhone Poulenc and BASF,.

Following the launch of the US cases, further actions are planned under competition law, Mishcon de Reya said. Michael Cover, one of the firm's partners, said: "Our main focus will be to seek damages under UK and EU competition law. We will specifically be looking at agreements to conduct anti-competitive practices and abuse of dominant positions in the market place, forbidden under articles 81 and 82 of the Amsterdam Treaty [which came into force this year]."

The news comes at an increasingly difficult time for GM companies, which have suffered in the public relations war between corporations and environmental groups. Last week, it was reported that Monsanto was coming under intense pressure to shed parts of its organisation in the wake of the campaign against GM foods, following a drop in share prices.

Mishcon de Reya and the 10 US law firms involved will be taking the actions forward on a "no-win, no-fee" basis on behalf of both citizens' organisations and individuals. The names of the plaintiffs in the actions have not been revealed.

Adrian Bebb, representing the campaign group Friends of the Earth at the meeting, said: "We are looking very closely at the prospect of becoming involved in this legal action at a European level and we will be helping the American lawyers with any information they require for their actions in the US and other countries."

Andrew Simms, agriculture campaigner for the charity Christian Aid, said: "These legal actions are very exciting and interesting ... they are refocusing the GM debate on the core questions of corporate power and control. We want to give power and control back to the people who are going hungry."

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