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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

China OKs GM Corn; Problems Remain

MADISON, Wisc. (CN) - China has reversed its ban on a genetically modified corn, but its developer Syngenta still faces hundreds of million-dollar class actions that claim it destroyed corn exports to China.

China banned U.S. corn shipments in November 2013 after finding corn with Syngenta's MIR162 trait in its imports.

Syngenta genetically engineered MIR162 corn to resist pests such as the corn borer and the corn rootworm by secreting proteins that bind to and kill insects. The corn entered the U.S. market in 2009 under the brand name Agrisure Viptera. A second-generation strain known as Duracade was released in 2014.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against Syngenta in February alone, many of them class actions seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Given that many countries, including China, had not approved corn possessing the MIR162 trait, U.S. farmers accuse Syngenta of releasing Viptera and Duracade with "reckless disregard of the consequences of inflicting widespread harm to the U.S. corn market." (The quote comes from lead plaintiff D&D Olson Farms Feb. 13 federal lawsuit against Syngenta on behalf of several Wisconsin farmers.)

China approved the GM corn in late December 2014 and began accepting shipments.

Syngenta applauded the move.

"We are very pleased to receive Chinese import approval for the Agrisure Viptera trait, also known as MIR162," Syngenta Seeds president Ponsi Trivisvavet said in a statement.

Plaintiffs in many lawsuits, such as D&D Olson Farms, claim they suffered $1 billion in lost profits and other damages after Syngenta released its GMO corn without approval from importers.

They also claim that Syngenta deceived farmers into believing that China played only a minor role in the U.S. corn export market, and carelessly contaminated the U.S. grain supply by encouraging farmers to adopt planting practices that promoted cross-contamination of normal corn with Syngenta's GMO corn.

A month after Chinese regulators began rejecting U.S. corn shipments, in November 2013, China announced that it would destroy or return all batches of corn that tested positive for the trait.

China was the third-largest importer of U.S. corn in 2012, buying 5 million tons of it. It was expected to import around 7 million tons of U.S. corn in 2013, but after it detected Viptera, China's imports of U.S. corn dropped by a whopping 85 percent, D&D says in its complaint. (Citations in this article come from the D&D lawsuit.)

Syngenta suspected that China might not approve MIR162 corn until some time in 2015, but it continued selling the seed despite knowing "the significant damage that U.S. farmers would experience as a result of the rejection of corn by China," the complaint states.

In a lawsuit Syngenta filed against Bunge North America in 2011 for refusing to accept Viptera corn, "unrebutted evidence indicated that redirection costs for a rejected shipment of corn contaminated with the MIR162 trait could cost between $4 million to $20 million for a single shipment," according to the complaint.

The United States is the largest corn producer in the world, with about 41 percent of the global market.

Though Viptera is planted on only 3 percent of the 85 million acres used to grow corn, Syngenta took no precautions to prevent contamination of non-GM corn with Viptera, the complaint states.

In fact, the plaintiffs say, Syngenta encouraged farmers to grow Viptera corn in fields adjacent to normal corn seed despite knowing that Viptera corn could taint normal corn through cross-pollination or by commingling with it during processing.

The plaintiffs claim Syngenta misled farmers into believing that Viptera was "under active review" and that approval was imminent, and put Biosafety Certificate forms on its website, implying that farmers could ship corn to China by filling out the form, even if their crop had the MIR162 trait - which was not true, the complaint states.

To make matters worse, the plaintiffs say, Syngenta refused to indemnify farmers by claiming that they suffered no financial exposure because they were not directly involved in the export transaction.

"To the contrary, losses to U.S. corn farmers as a result of Syngenta's activities have been staggering," the complaint states.

China's ban on U.S. corn also caused domestic prices to tank, costing U.S. farmers at least $1 billion in lost profits, the plaintiffs say.

Farmers have had to segregate and scrutinize their corn crops to reduce the likelihood of contamination and were told by the National Corn Growers Association to completely clean out grain carts, augers and other corn harvesting equipment used on corn that might contain Viptera or Duracade traits, the complaint adds.

The National Grain and Feed Association urged Syngenta to stop selling Viptera and Duracade corn until China lifted its ban on U.S. shipments, but Syngenta refused, choosing to protect its $3.5 billion in profits from corn sales rather than protect growers and exporters from the economic harm of Chinese corn rejection, according to the complaint.

Neither party's counsel returned calls and emails seeking comment.

D&D Olson Farms et al. seek class certification, declaratory judgment that Syngenta's misrepresentation of Viptera's approval status in China tortiously interfered with their prospective business relationship, and compensatory and punitive damages for false advertising, public nuisance, negligence and negligent misrepresentation.

They are represented by Michael J. Modl with Axley Brynelson of Madison.

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