Genetically-modified-organism traits have become common, everyday occurrences in agriculture. Farmers plant Roundup Ready, LibertyLink, Widestrike and other traited crops with scarcely a second thought. But the world outside agriculture continues to view GMOs with some suspicion even though no one has ever proved plants containing the traits are any more harmful to humans than those from conventional crops.
Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera GMO trait — Vip is short for Vegetable Insecticide Protein — was supposed to be the latest in a series of successful products that would help growers control hard-to-kill insects in corn. Because it was a different kind of protein than the Bt genes, it was expected to help prevent resistance in corn insect pests.
In 2010, Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera GMO trait — aimed at worm pests in corn — was approved by the U.S. government for production. Soon, U.S. producers planted corn with the trait. Approval of the trait, however, had yet to come from China, a key export market for U.S. corn, and that set off a tumble of dominoes.
When China discovered the unapproved trait in shipments, it closed the export pipeline to a trickle. Unhappy with the lost market and the hit to bottom lines, many of those in the U.S. corn export chain filed hundreds of lawsuits against Syngenta. Those suits have now been consolidated in federal court.
Asked for comment, Paul Minehart, Syngenta’s head of corporate communications – North America, says the company believes it did what it was supposed to do.
“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,” he noted.
“Syngenta believes the lawsuits are without merit and strongly upholds the right of growers to have access to approved new technologies that can increase both their productivity and crop yields. The issues involved in these cases are extremely important and affect every American farmer’s right to benefit from new technologies that help grow better crops. When a U.S.-approved product like Agrisure Viptera (event MIR162) is kept out of a market for political and economic reasons, farmers — and consumers — lose.”
The other side
Attorneys for the farmers in the consolidated lawsuits said the problem occurred because Syngenta decided to commercialize the trait before it jumped through all the regulatory hoops required for GMO introductions.
“Basically, what happened is Syngenta — a biotech company — had a decision to make in 2010. They’d just gotten a new GM trait (MIR162) approved, which was in their Agrisure Viptera corn,” said Don Downing, attorney for one group of producers.
“Earlier, they’d pledged to others in the industry, including stakeholders and farmers, that they wouldn’t commercialize any new GM trait unless and until all major export markets had approved it. Everyone was concerned, obviously, that if such a trait wasn’t approved then a major market could be lost.”
Downing contends Syngenta commercialized the trait in late 2010 or early 2011. The Chinese government, testing for the trait, found it in a shipment from Cargill in December of 2013. The Chinese began to reject virtually all U.S. corn shipments after that.
Along with Minehart’s statement, the company provided the following background:
“On December 22, 2014, Syngenta announced that it had received the safety certificate for the Agrisure Viptera trait from China’s regulatory authorities, formally granting import approval. The approval covers corn grain and processing byproducts, such as dried distillers grains (DDGs), for food and feed use.
“The Agrisure Viptera trait was approved for cultivation in the U.S. in 2010. Syngenta commercialized the trait in full compliance with regulatory and legal requirements. Syngenta also obtained import approval from major corn importing countries. Syngenta has been fully transparent in commercializing the trait over the last four years. During this time Agrisure Viptera has demonstrated major benefits for growers, preventing significant yield and grain quality losses resulting from damage by a broad spectrum of lepidopteran pests.”
China has approved the 162 trait. But the resumption of trade isn’t at the level it was when the trait was discovered, Downing says.
“One of the reasons we’re concerned about this is in addition to the Agrisure Viptera trait, in 2014 Syngenta introduced another variety, Agrisure Duracade with another GM trait, 5307. That new trait is also not approved in China.”