Kentucky, Indiana corn growers join other U.S farmers in lawsuits against GMO seed maker
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky farmers have filed more than 20 federal lawsuits alleging a Swiss company distributed genetically-modified corn before gaining approval to sell it to China, harming exports to a leading buyer of U.S. corn.
Sen. Paul Hornback, who chairs the state Senate's agriculture committee, is among those who has sued Syngenta Corp. and its affiliates since Jan. 1 in U.S. District Court in Kentucky. Two lawsuits have been filed in Indiana and at least 300 nationwide against Syngenta already this year.
The lawsuits claim Syngenta told farmers, grain operators and others that China was close to accepting an insect-resistant corn variety, “although it knew that it lacked approval from Chinese authorities.” Instead, the lawsuits allege, a Chinese ban on the corn in November 2013 resulted in U.S. growers losing more than $1.14 billion last year.
The farmers are asking for, among other things, monetary and other damages and a court order finding that the company falsely advertised the corn.
David Sisson, who raises corn, soybeans, wheat and tobacco on 1,200 acres in Graves County in western Kentucky, said the price of corn “just went completely berserk,” dropping from more than $7 per bushel to less than $3 after the ban.
Sisson sued Syngenta in U.S. District Court in Paducah on Jan. 10. He is seeking at least $75,000 from the company, according to the lawsuit.
In an interview, Sisson said it's little consolation that China recently lifted the ban on the corn called “Agrisure Viptera.”
“China's started buying it, but it's too late,” he said in an interview.
Hornback, a Shelbyville Republican who has served in the state Senate since 2011, did not immediately respond to messages left at his home and Frankfort office.
While the Syngenta corn was only planted on 3 percent of all U.S. farm acres, it mixed with other corn during the export process -- likely ensuring that nearly all shipments of American-grown corn contained trace amounts of the banned grain, according to the lawsuits.
As a result, the majority of American corn was “effectively excluded from what was previously the third-largest export market for U.S. corn, causing U.S. farmers significant damages as corn prices have dropped from the loss of China's export market,” the lawsuits say.
In a statement, Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said the company believes the lawsuits are “without merit.”
“Syngenta has done what a good company should do,” Minehart said. “We developed a superior product that helps farmers; we applied for and received government approvals from the U.S. and major export markets at the time; and we submitted an import application to the Chinese government that was timely, accurate and complete.”
The lawsuits, some of which seek class-action status, are being moved to U.S. District in Court in Kansas as part of multi-district litigation. Louisville attorney Hans Poppe, who represents farmers who have sued Syngenta in Kentucky and Iowa, expects all the cases will eventually be sent there.
Corn sales generated $766 million for Kentucky growers in 2013, a 12 percent drop from the year before, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. It was it the fourth-highest-grossing farm commodity, trailing poultry and eggs; soybeans; and cattle.
The state's western counties produce the bulk of Kentucky corn, led by 14.9 million bushels from Union County in 2013, according to the U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Livestock and poultry operations buy most of Kentucky's corn, while distillers purchase about 10 percent and other industries buy “a small percentage,” said Laura Knoth, executive director of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association. Roughly 10 percent of corn grown in the state is exported, she said.
“It's very important and obviously our No. 1 concern is ensuring that we meet all of our markets,” she said.
The Chinese ban had a “huge impact” on Kentucky corn exports, which had been growing in recent years, said Joe Cain, commodities director for Kentucky Farm Bureau.
And despite China's acceptance of the “Viptera” corn last month, a ban still is in place on another type of genetically-modified type of corn, Syngenta's “Agrisure Duracade,” which was distributed for planting in 2014, according to the lawsuits.
“There's still some potential problems with some traits that are approved here and haven't yet been approved by the Chinese,” Cain said.
Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All rights reserved.