Class Action Lawsuits Target Agriculture

Last month, I wrote about “connected consumers” and how they can peer into the world of agriculture through their smartphones and other digital media to learn more about the food they purchase and who is growing it. This can offer opportunities. But it also can present challenges — negative news and misinformation can spread as easily and as fast as true information.

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For example, what started as an off-shoot of the anti-GMO movement has blossomed into a class action lawsuit bonanza. You may have seen the commercials from law firms trolling the waters for people who have developed a certain form of cancer as a result of exposure to glyphosate. This was fueled by digital connectivity and the spread of information via social media platforms, blogs, and websites.

A retracted study suggesting GMOs and glyphosate caused cancer in rats made its rounds on social media long after it was debunked. Photos of rats with baseball-sized tumors on their sides painted a scary picture to unknowing consumers.

Later, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) statement that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” added fuel to the fire. Cherry-picked by opposition activists, the IARC designation was controversial because it opposed many global regulatory/safety agencies that deemed the herbicide not a risk.

The study was further called into question in 2017 when Reuters reported that the head of the IARC glyphosate review board withheld information, showing no link between the chemical and cancer. More recently, Health Canada stood by its position that glyphosate was safe, stating: “After a thorough scientific review, we have concluded that the concerns raised by the objectors could not be scientifically supported when considering the entire body of relevant data. The objections raised did not create doubt or concern regarding the scientific basis for the 2017 re-evaluation decision for glyphosate. Therefore, the Department’s final decision will stand.”

While this debate now moves into the legal system, it is certain to remain fodder for social media. This is unfortunate because it can be used to paint agriculture in a negative light.
Other news out of North Carolina reports how urban definitions applied to farming via various digital connections can have a negative impact. Another round of class-action lawsuits targeting hog farms allege they are a nuisance to neighbors who have moved into more rural areas near farms.

During the recent American Farm Bureau Convention, a panel took up the topic. Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council, said four recent trials in North Carolina have resulted in more than $550 million in damages for 26 plaintiffs, with hundreds more plaintiffs awaiting trials.

In July 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded more than $25 million in a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, alleging a hog farm owned by Joey Carter was a nuisance, even though Carter met or exceeded state laws regarding manure.

While Smithfield Farms is a target of the “big ag is bad” social media meme, it is the farmer who is taking the hit. While this is a hog farm in North Carolina, it should be a concern to Florida growers, too, if this class action lawsuit frenzy continues, driven by urban consumers who don’t understand the realities of farming.

“If it can happen to Joey Carter, it can happen to anyone, anywhere,” Curliss said.