Opinion: Will Syngenta corn lawsuit end up in the Supreme Court?

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Former congressman and currenty lawyer Bill Enyart talks with farmers at the Hilton Garden Inn on Sept. 1, 2015. Enyart was advising farmers considering joining lawsuits against Syngenta.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

As The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting covered in September, grain farmers and elevator operators are taking Syngenta to court for its rollout of Agrisure Viptera corn seed, which is a genetically modified or GMO variety.

And here is the wonky background.

Typically, a seed company gets U.S. approval of a new GMO strain AND obtains assurances from potential export destinations for that GMO variety BEFORE a widespread commercial release.

Syngenta began selling Agrisure Viptera corn in the 2010 to 2011 crop year without China’s acceptance of the seed. In fact, China did not authorize the GMO for import until December 2014.

But Syngenta forged ahead, selling the seeds every year since 2010, a decision that ultimately created a ticking time bomb that exploded during the 2013 harvest. At that point, China rejected all U.S. corn shipments, saying they were contaminated with a yet-to-be approved strain.

As an aside, just why China waited so long to approve the GMO corn for import is complicated, but the bottom line is that China’s government is unpredictable when it comes to agriculture. EVERYBODY knows that — Syngenta included.

As a result of China’s decision to stop U.S. corn shipments, American farmers and elevators are now claiming damages against Syngenta in the billions.

It’s not surprising Syngenta tried to stay out of court. But its pre-trial motion failed and The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas will hear the case.

Also at stake are a few potential new protections for farmers. A couple previous cases – most notably a case involving StarLink Corn Products Liability Ligation – established that seed companies are liable for damages arising from contamination of the U.S. food supply by unapproved GMO strains.

The Syngenta case will explore if seed companies are liable for GMO strains approved in the United States but not by major foreign markets.

In responding to Syngenta’s pre-trial motion, the court described interconnected markets. It said that, in this case, seed companies and farmers have a joined-at-the-hip relationship, and Syngenta needs to take particular care not to hurt farmers.

As long as the money for attorneys holds out, this case could eventually end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.


About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

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