You may laugh at my title, but currently over 1,300 farmers have filed Federal lawsuits against Syngenta. The lawsuits stem from Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera® which contains the MR162 genetic trait aimed at the control of armyworms.
Syngenta began selling the seeds in 2011 after gaining U.S. approval in 2010. Key trading partners approved the seed variety around the same time except for China, which did not grant approval till December 2014. If you have paid attention to the corn market over the past year or so, you can probably guess where this story is going. Today, let’s take a look at this ongoing litigation and where it currently stands. For a more detailed overview of the case, Tiffany Lashmet at Texas A&M has co-authored a fact sheet with members of the Texas Corn Producers that gives a more detailed history of the case and is available here.
At the time MIR162 was approved in the United States and with other key trading partners, China was becoming a larger purchaser of U.S. corn. In 2012, China imported 2.7 million metric tons of corn from the United States, or roughly 106 million bushels. In 2013, projections were that China would represent 20 percent of the U.S. corn export market (Compliant, 2014). But in 2013, China found traces of MIR162 in corn imports from the United States and began to reject any corn shipment with a trace of MIR162.
Over this same period, corn prices (as well as other commodity prices) have fallen from highs experienced in mid-2012. As has been pointed out by one author, this decline can potentially be traced from lower yields due to a drought in 2012 to record yields in 2013 and 2014, but many have argued the decline is due to China’s rejection of U.S. corn shipments because of contamination by the MIR162 genes (Tidgren, 2014). U.S. corn imports to China did drop by 85 percent since the discovery of MIR162 traces in November 2013 (Tidgren 2014).
MIR162 has led to a host of lawsuits from U.S. farmers, Cargill, and Syngenta itself. Today we will focus mainly on the claims from the lawsuits filed by U.S. farmers. For those interested in the lawsuits filed by Cargill against Syngenta and Syngenta’s lawsuit filed against Bunge, see an article by Kristine Tidgren, Syngenta Litigation Still Pending Despite China’s Viptera Approval published by Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.
Starting in September 2014, U.S. farmers began to file lawsuits seeking a class action lawsuit against Syngenta for the disruption to the U.S. corn market caused by the release of MIR162. The claims in the class action lawsuits are being brought on a variety of legal issues. Class members claim that Syngenta violated the Lanham act (a Federal law), violated state laws related to false or misleading statements about a product, and is the cause of negligence claims, trespass to chattels claims, nuisance claims, and violations of state consumer protection laws. Recently a group of Arkansas farmers brought additional claims including a claim that Syngenta violated the Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This is the same Federal act used to go after members of the mafia.
So where are we at today in this ongoing litigation? On December 11, 2014, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) ruled that all the 1,300 plus lawsuits should be consolidated in one Federal district court (In re: Syngenta, 2014). The JPML is a special body within the Federal court system that manages multidistrict litigation. JPML decides when pending Federal civil lawsuits in two or more Federal districts should be transferred to one Federal district court. This is usually done when the civil lawsuits involve common questions of fact. In this case, the JPML ruled that all pending litigation should be transferred to the Federal district court in Kansas.
At this time, pending suits are being transferred to the district court in Kansas and the parties are going through pre-trial motions (boring stuff for the non-attorneys out there). There is a chance that Syngenta may settle before this litigation goes to trial, but only time will tell.
Five Star Farms v. Syngenta AG, No. 2:14-cv-02571-JWL-JPO (D. Kan. filed Nov. 11, 2014).
Schlessinger, L., and A. B. Endres. “The Missing Link: Farmers’ Class Action Against Syngenta May Answer Legal Questions Left After the StarLink and LibertyLink Litigation.” farmdoc daily (5):35, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 25, 2015. Available at http://farmdocdaily.illinois.edu/2015/02/missing-link-farmers-class-action-against-syngenta.html
Tidgren, K. “Syngenta Litigation Still Pending Despite China’s Viptera Approval.” Center of Agricultural Law and Taxation, Iowa State University, December 27, 2014. Available at http://www.calt.iastate.edu/article/syngenta-litigation-still-pending-despite-chinas-viptera-approval