American corn farmers are suing Syngenta for $2.9 billion. Should Canadian farmers sue too?

A pair of lawyers came all the way from Alabama to gauge Manitoba farmers’ interest

Two American lawyers were in Manitoba last week exploring the merits of launching a multimillion-dollar Canadian class-action lawsuit against Syngenta on behalf of Canadian corn farmers.

Jim Thompson and Nolan Awbrey, who practise in Birmingham, Alabama, are just two of many lawyers in the United States suing Syngenta for $2.9 billion on behalf of American corn farmers.

They claim Syngenta was negligent by not living up to a commitment to make sure a GM corn variety not yet approved in China would not show up in export shipments.

In December 2013 China banned all imports of U.S. corn after discovering traces of Syngenta’s genetically modified (GM) Agrisure Viptera corn in shipments a month earlier. While Viptera was approved in the U.S. in 2010, China didn’t approve it until December 2014.

Syngenta’s actions also lowered Canadian corn prices, which, like American prices, are established on the Chicago Board of Trade’s futures market, Thompson said in an interview here Sept. 17.

Meanwhile, Syngenta is still selling Agrisure Duricade corn, which has a GM trait that China has not approved.

A spokesperson for Syngenta Canada said that the U.S. lawsuits against Syngenta are without merit and the same would hold for any Canadian legal action.

“We will continue to defend the rights of farmers to have access to safe, effective, approved technologies like Agrisure Viptera,” he wrote. “We commercialized Viptera in full compliance with regulatory and legal requirements and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) statistics make clear that the commodity price of corn declined before China’s rejection of U.S. corn in November 2013.”

However, according to Thompson, losing such a major corn market depressed prices.

A U.S. federal judge decided last week the bulk of lawsuits against Syngenta can go to trial, according to published reports.

According to Awbrey, Syngenta promised USDA it would prevent Viptera from being exported to countries that had not approved it.

“They (Syngenta) had very specific written guidelines and they just didn’t follow them,” Awbrey said.

“It’s not just that it got commingled and the price went down, it’s this direct, fraudulent misrepresentation — we (Syngenta) will do the following if you (USDA) approve it — and it wasn’t done.”

A successful claim in the U.S. could amount to about $20 an acre for U.S. farmers. In Canada, because of lower yields, farmers could get $15.

The lawyers said there are precedents. Bayer CropScience was ordered by the courts in 2010 to compensate growers after an unapproved GM rise disrupted markets.

Thompson and Awbrey believe Canadian corn growers have the same claim for compensation from Syngenta as their U.S. counterparts. What is needed are a couple of Canadian farmers to represent Canada’s corn growers in a class action.

After discussing the issue with Manitoba corn growers last week, Thompson was to meet Ontario corn farmers this week.

Farmers who represent the class would be named in the suit and would have to probably provide a deposition testifying to their claim for compensation, Thompson said.

All the legal costs will be borne by the lawyers win or lose, he said.

“It’s really a win-win for farmers,” Thompson said.

A Canadian suit would be heard by a Canadian court and by Canadian lawyer David Klein of Klein Lawyers LLP of Vancouver, Thompson said.

Thompson said he understands why Canadian corn growers might be leery about their proposal at first.

“You got two country boys coming all the way from Alabama; they’ll be saying, ‘who are these guys? Are they for real or are they imposters?”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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