Tuesday, December 30, 2014 - On December 17, China finally lifted the ban on Syngenta‘s controversial genetically modified corn Viptera. This particular strain of corn was at the heart of roughly 177 lawsuits against its manufacturer Syngenta Corp., which the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decided to consolidate in Kansas less than a week prior on December 12. The case revolves around the controversy concerning China‘s initial denial of the U.S.‘s Syngenta‘s Viptera corn exports. The genetically modified seeds were mass produced in America for sale in China in late 2013. At the time this particular strain had yet to be approved by Chinese officials and their rejection caused a logjam that cost the grain industry upwards of a billion dollars.
The lawsuits filed against Syngenta Corp. focus on their premature release of a strain of corn intended for farmers selling their crop worldwide. However, the farmers were not informed of Viptera‘s pending approval status in China. Viptera corn was genetically engineered to be resistant to more than a dozen particular insects, and had been used in the U.S. for years before their expected exportation to China. The genetic modification at the heart of the lawsuits, also known as MIR162, was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April of 2010 and previously given the OK by both the EPA and the FDA.
However China had not approved the genetic modifications of the Viptera seeds when they originally received the shipments, and did not accept any that included even traces of the strain. The sizable volume of Viptera seeds that were cultivated heavily affected the corn trade, as China‘s imports for U.S. corn have fallen 85 percent since November 2013. Corn farmers, operators of grain silos and a list of others involved throughout the grain distribution chain that lost revenue because of Syngenta‘s genetically modified corn make up the plaintiffs filing suit against Syngenta in the MDL.
Some estimates peg the damage caused by the overproduction of Syngenta‘s Viptera seed anywhere between $1 billion and $3 billion, in large part due to China being the world‘s fastest growing corn market. In addition to the rejected Viptera strain, the denial and subsequent seizures of U.S. vessels carrying the corn also added to the net market loss caused by Syngenta. The block lasted more than a year since China first began to receive shipments in late 2013.
The news that China has now approved the Viptera corn is a step in the right direction for Syngenta, but it has not necessarily cleared up how the future of the MDL will unfold. While some reports claim that Syngenta may move more quickly to settle in the light of the approval, plaintiffs such as Cargill believe that the approval won‘t necessarily affect the proceedings of the lawsuits since China‘s recent acceptance of the corn doesn‘t negate how drastically it affected the market in the past year.
The decision to consolidate the cases in Kansas came in large part due to the experience the court has with complex multidistrict litigation, and also because the location was described as "readily accessible" because of its relatively light docket compared to other U.S. District Courts. Sitting Federal Judge John W. Lungstrum was referenced specifically for his history with these types of cases. Both the plaintiffs and defendants were content with Kansas as a location for the hearings.
Additional proposed class actions aim at the Syngenta-advised methods of planting the Viptera seeds next to farmers‘ non-GMO corn. This directive for farmers from Syngenta made it likely that although the non-GMO corn wasn‘t derived directly from a Viptera strain, the GMO corn could have easily contaminated their original crop which likely would have been rejected by Chinese officials.