Battle of the GM Corn

Syngenta moves ahead with Bunge lawsuit
By Holly Jessen | October 18, 2011

Bunge North America and Syngenta Corp. are locked in a court battle over whether Bunge should still accept Syngenta’s genetically modified (GM) Agrisure Viptera trait corn despite the fact that the trademarked product doesn’t yet have regulatory approval for the export markets of the European Union and China.

An issue of contention is whether China is a “major importer” of U.S. corn. In September 2010, the North American Grain Association urged the Biotechnology Industry Organization to “define the minimum markets in which regulatory requirements should be met prior to commercialization” to include eight countries, one of which was China. The recommended list of countries was not changed, however, and Syngenta followed BIO’s existing recommendations for import approvals when offering Viptera corn for commercial sale in the U.S. Further, Syngenta says approval for China is expected in early 2012.

In court documents, Syngenta argued that Bunge could separate Viptera corn to nonexport users, such as ethanol plants, food processors or feed mills. Bunge, however, said such a separating system would cost $6 to $8 million per facility and that if a shipment to China were rejected for contamination with an unapproved transgenic trait, such as Viptera, the cost to redirect that corn could be from $4 to $20 million. In addition, it was pointed out that some ethanol facilities may not accept Viptera corn because distillers grains from that plant couldn’t be exported to the EU or China if produced with Viptera corn. 

Viptera corn became commercially available to U.S. corn farmers for the 2011 planting season. The corn variety provides protection from 14 insects, including corn borer and corn rootworm. It also reduces development of fungus and mycotoxins in stored corn, due to reduction in insect damage. The genetically modified corn has received the necessary regulatory approvals from the USDA. It has also received approvals for cultivation in Canada, Argentina and Brazil and import in several countries, including Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico and more.

Legally, Bunge scored the first point in late September when a judge in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa ruled against Syngenta’s motion for a preliminary injunction against Bunge. Regardless of that ruling, Syngenta is still moving forward with a lawsuit against the Bunge. “This lawsuit is only part of Syngenta’s determination to secure greater clarity for growers regarding industry marketing practices for newly approved technologies, enabling them to market their grain with confidence,” a Syngenta spokesperson tells EPM. “From this perspective, our determination is unchanged.”

Bunge, on the other hand, says the court decision denying the preliminary injunction was a sign that the court would ultimately rule that Syngenta’s case is without merit. “We believe the court’s final ruling will further validate the actions Bunge took to protect the integrity of our export supply chain.”

Bunge is not the only major player to announce it won’t accept Viptera corn. Archer Daniels Midland Co. said it wouldn’t take it at any of its North American wet mill facilities until the corn receives regulatory approval from the European Union.

Cargill Inc. also isn’t accepting the corn at its wet-milling facilities, says Mark Klein, spokesperson. He points to a long-standing policy of not accepting product not approved for use in the EU—a policy that was in place before Syngenta’s Viptera corn was commercialized. The fact that exports of corn and distillers grains to China have increased in recent years is also a factor for Cargill. The company joins others such as Bunge in considering China to be a major export market. “Cargill strongly values its right to accept or restrict products of agricultural biotechnology, dependant on the approval status in export markets and needs of our customers,” Klein tells EPM.

The company’s policy at its grain elevators is different. Cargill requires written notification before delivery of Viptera corn to its grain elevators, Klein says. Still, the company doesn’t guarantee the corn will be accepted at Cargill grain elevators, even with written notification.  

—Holly Jessen