A trial that pits 7,000 farmers against Syngenta has begun in Kansas

A Syngenta snafu? On Monday, just as the “pink slime” defamation trial was getting underway in South Dakota, another major lawsuit revved up two states to the south: in Kansas, over 7,000 farmers are suing agri-behemoth Syngenta over its alleged premature introduction of a GMO corn variety into American farmland. A second case, which involves about 60,000 plaintiffs, goes to trial in a Minnesota state court on July 10, the Associated Press reports.

Because grain elevators and shippers combine corn from several different farms, any grower whose corn was mixed with Viptera lost access to the Chinese market.

Here’s what the plaintiffs say: Syngenta developed a genetically modified, insect-resistant strain of corn called Viptera, which was approved in the United States in 2010. The strain was also approved that year in many key export markets including Canada, Japan, and Mexico. Syngenta started marketing Viptera to farmers for the 2011 growing season, allegedly assuring them that China would also approve the product in time to buy their 2011 crop. Part of the lawsuit centers around farmers’ claims that Syngenta knew China’s swift approval may not have been a foregone conclusion, yet it marketed Viptera by claiming otherwise.

After U.S. farmers planted Viptera, a bunch of things happened at once. China, which the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service calls “a significant source of uncertainty in the world corn trade,” started importing a lot more U.S. corn. Ohio’s Country Journal reports that Chinese imports more than quintupled from less than a million metric tons in the 2010-2011 season to 5.2 million metric tons a year later. And at first, China accepted shipments that included Viptera even though it hadn’t been officially approved. But in late 2013, the country started rejecting any shipments containing the genetically modified corn. Around the same time, worldwide corn prices dropped significantly.

Whether caused by China’s rejection of corn shipments or other economic and environmental factors, the end result was that U.S. corn farmers lost a lot of money that season. And it wasn’t just Viptera-growing farmers who suffered: Because grain elevators and shippers combine corn from several different farms, any grower whose corn was mixed with Viptera lost access to the Chinese market.

Syngenta has set up a website called Viptera China Facts to dispute the farmers’ claims. It says the price of corn dropped by 30 percent before China started rejecting shipments, and therefore farmers can’t blame Viptera for a bad year. The Associated Press reports Syngenta’s attorney says that he’ll show jurors that the Chinese rejections were a result, rather than a cause, of lower prices: He claims China signed contracts at high prices, then conveniently started having a problem with Viptera after the worldwide prices dropped.

And there’s another wrinkle in this story, one that may complicate the picture. China’s state-owned ChemChina is in the midst of a merger with Syngenta. “Notably, the legal conundrum is mounting as state-owned ChemChina is in the midst of buying Syngenta for $43 billion, meaning that if the farmers win the suit, the buck could pass back to China, which initially rejected the grain.” Lorraine Chow of EcoWatch, an activist-oriented environmental news site, explains.

Ohio dairy farmer and attorney Leisa Boley-Hellwarth received invitations to join the class-action suit even though she hasn’t grown corn for export in decades. She wrote a fascinating column for Ohio’s Country Journal about the suit, asserting that “this is millionaires arguing with billionaires over money.” But after raising questions about what this suit could mean for global trade, the need to prove “proximate cause,” and the role of GMO fearmongering, she ends on a point that’s well-taken: “I just hope that all of the lawyers chasing farmers for representation against Syngenta will be similarly motivated should farmers need help with debt reorganization and actions against creditors.”

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.