Farmers suing Syngenta over GMO corn granted class action status in federal court

© Carey Gillam
A federal judge has granted class action status to at least 440,000 farmers accusing agrochemical giant Syngenta of selling genetically modified corn seeds and costing them billions of dollars in lost revenue, due to China resisting imports of US corn.

US District Court of Kansas Judge John Lungstrum certified a class of at least 440,000 farmers on Monday, according to the Kansas City Star.

“The Court’s ruling will make it easier and less expensive for farmers to pursue their claims against Syngenta,” said Scott Powell, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, in a released statement, according to the St. Louis Dispatch. “Instead of having to retain and pay individual counsel, file their own lawsuit, produce voluminous farm records, sit for a deposition and appear at trial, the Court found that all class members may attempt to prove their claims through a limited number of class representatives. If those class representatives win, all class members win. No individual farmer has to file a lawsuit to seek a recovery.”

The legal dispute against Syngenta began in 2014, when the company allegedly “prematurely and irresponsibly” released new seed varieties that were not approved by China. Those varieties, Agrisure Viptera and Duracade, contaminated US corn exports to China, leading to a trade ban in late 2013.

Plaintiffs said the trade ban and China’s continued unwillingness to buy GMO corn from the US had resulted in estimated losses of $5 to $7 million for domestic corn growers. China at the time had not approved corn grown by the Syngenta seeds.

Syngenta said it may appeal the district court’s decision.

“Syngenta respectfully disagrees with this ruling, particularly given the widely varying ways in which farmers grow and sell corn in different markets across the US,” Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart told the St. Louis Dispatch.

The plaintiffs in the case did not use Syngenta’s products, but said that Syngenta-grown corn was commingled throughout the US corn supply, causing China to reject all US corn. That caused corn prices to fall in the US, plaintiffs said, according to the Kansas City Star.

“Once you’ve lost a foreign market, it’s very difficult to get it back because they tend to look to other countries to fill their needs,” Don Downing, one of four lawyers working on the case told St. Louis Dispatch.

Downing added that Syngenta’s responsibility was intentional, not a result of negligence. The grain industry had warned the corporation that China’s failure to approve the seed varieties presented an unnecessary risk to an important foreign trade partner.

Downing said China has turned to Ukraine as its primary supplier of corn imports. He says China now also uses imports of the grain milo, a sorghum product, as a feed substitute to US corn.

“When we lost the Chinese market, it affected the Chicago Board of Trade price for corn,” Downing said. “All farmers across the country were affected on a per-bushel basis, equally.”

In terms of sheer monetary value, Downing says the legal case to recover losses could be one for the ages.

“In the agricultural sector, it certainly has the potential to be the largest case in history,” Downing said.

A trial is currently set for June 2017.

In addition to the nationwide class action status established by Monday’s ruling, statewide classes of affected farmers were approved in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.