Farmers across the South stand to lose millions of dollars as a result of a North Carolina biotech firm's quest to genetically modify rice -- and now the company is blaming the farmers and God for the crisis.

The claims by Bayer CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C. were contained in a 30-page response to a class-action lawsuit filed by hundreds of rice farmers in Arkansas and Missouri, the Washington Post reports. The suit is one of 15 filed against the company by U.S. rice farmers.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that genetically engineered material had been found in the nation's rice supply. Six states produce nearly all the rice grown in the United States; besides Arkansas and Missouri, they are California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, according to the U.S. Rice Producers Association.

From 1999 to 2001, Aventis CropScience -- bought by Bayer in 2002 -- conducted field tests in Louisiana of a variety of long-grain rice known as LL601, but it ended the project without seeking government permission to market the product. The rice was genetically modified to withstand applications of the company's herbicide used to control weeds.

After LL601 was discovered in the U.S. rice supply, Europe cut off imports, ruining what had been expected to be a good price year for farmers. The USDA is investigating how the modified rice escaped from test plots into farmers' fields.

According to a statement from the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, trace amounts of Bayer's herbicide-resistance trait was discovered by a rice export customer in January, and the customer contacted Riceland Foods of Stuttgart, Ark. for an explanation.

Samples from several locations were collected in May and tested positive for the LL601 trait. Riceland contacted Bayer in early June, and in late July Bayer confirmed the findings. At that point, the USDA launched its investigation.

Farmers have pointed out that if Riceland had acknowledged the problem to the industry when the contamination was first discovered, farmers could have done testing before planting.

Lawyers representing the farmers said their clients has no reason to suspect they were planting contaminated seeds and were offended by the company's attempt to blame the growers, according to the Post:

"The farmers are innocent victims," said Don Downing, a principal at Gray, Ritter & Graham PC, the St. Louis firm that filed the largest suit, in U.S. District Court in eastern Missouri.

Bayer has insisted that its test plots were in full compliance with USDA rules. In response, biotech critics say that only proves the inadequacy of the rules and also raises questions about whether the department can fairly investigate the problem.

European Union officials have complained that the United States took more than two weeks to warn Europe of the contamination after Bayer informed federal authorities.