By Nancy McGill
The Syngenta saga continues on with an attorney from Minnesota rolling through Thayer County to hold informational meetings on a mass tort lawsuit representing over 40,000 individual plaintiffs against the Swiss-based agri-business.
“We sent out letters to all corn farmers,” Attorney Christopher Poynor said of the meetings he is holding in every corn-producing county three times a day. Prior to visiting Hebron last week, Poynor held meetings in Hastings, Sutton and Superior.
No one showed at the Hebron stop, which was held at the Stastny Community Center July 28. Poynor said attendance has been unpredictable.
That may be because the issues with Syngenta have permeated the corn-growing community across the nation since 2014.
The mass tort, which is similar to a class action lawsuit — except the violation stems from a single defendant — was filed in March of 2015 in Hennepin County, Minn., and covers the genetic trait, MIR162, used in corn seed by Syngenta to combat insects.
China, the United States’ largest single corn customer at that time, began refusing corn imports, which resulted in a market plunge. Corn prices went from $7 a bushel to less than $3 and has never recovered.
Syngenta is accused in the lawsuit for using the trait “without adequate precautions to prevent contamination of the U.S. corn and corn seed supplies; with the knowledge that (Agrisure) Viptera and Duracade corn would contaminate other non-genetically modified corn; with the knowledge that such contamination would likely affect the United States corn and corn seed supply; and with the knowledge there was substantial risk of contamination of the United States corn and corn seed supply earmarked for export.”
The lawsuit also contends the Syngenta committed common law negligence; tortious interference with prospective economic advantage; and violation of the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Poynor said Syngenta told the United States Department of Agriculture it would design a stewardship program to put strict controls on the seed so it wouldn’t infiltrate the general grain supply. Once Syngenta was approved for the program, it failed to place controls on the genetic corn.
According to a Cargill news release on its website, Cargill alleges Syngenta did not wait for China’s approval on the product. Cargill filed a complaint in September of 2014 in Louisiana state court because that’s where Agrisure Viptera left the United States shores’ bound for China.
“Syngenta also put the ability of U.S. agriculture to serve global markets at risk, costing both Cargill and the entire U.S. agricultural industry significant damages,” the president of Cargill Grain and Oilseed Supply Chain North America, Mark Stonacek, said.
The National Grain and Feed Association stated the loss suffered by farmers and U.S. exporters was up to $2.9 billion as China entered a 13-month moratorium on accepting corn.
Poynor said Syngenta told the Wall Street Journal it had received approval for Agrisure Viptera.
“We need to hold Syngenta accountable. You can’t play with the price of a commodity like that,” he said. “On the analysis we’ve done, we’re looking at $.62 to $1.30 per bushel for recovery.”
In a statement to agweb.com, Syngenta claimed the lawsuits “were without merit,” and “Agrisure Viptera has “demonstrated major benefits for farmers.”
Poynor said Syngenta’s actions affected the entire corn spectrum from farmers to landlords, elevators and transporters.
“You don’t have to had planted the Syngenta seed to be involved,” he said. “The damage was done to everyone’s corn price.”
Two former presidents of the National Corn Growers Association have conflicting opinions on the lawsuits.
In an March 2015 agri-sure.com article, one of the former presidents said the complaints were warranted because, “what happened was significant.”
But former president and Kansas farmer, Ken McCauley, called out to farmers who are being recruited by attorneys to say, “no, no, no.”
Farmers are “sending the wrong signal by joining the lawsuits,” they are “selling biotechnology providers down the river.”
According to agri-sure.com, McCauley called farmers involved, “ambulance chasers,” on Facebook.
Poynor said the toughest part of the case is listening to farmers. He knows of one whose family was affected by the 1980s Farm Crisis. The $7 corn helped the farmer buy back land lost in the crisis.
“Now, he’s right back where he started,” Poynor said.