It’s planting time for Midwest farmers and much of the corn they grow will end up feeding livestock in China, which has become a huge importer of grain from the Corn Belt. That means the farmers can’t just select seeds based on which ones will get the best yield. They have to think about where their grain will be sold.
China has its own rules for the kind of crops it wants and when American farmers don’t comply, China can close off its market.
In 2013, China discovered in U.S. corn a genetically engineered trait that, although permitted in the U.S., had not yet been approved in China. Chinese regulators rejected American corn because some of it contained the trait.
“When you hear China has banned all U.S. corn,” said Ward Graham, a farmer in South-Central Iowa, “a person in my position? That’s not good.”
The typical path to the marketplace is from one farm to a local grain elevator to a truck or rail car, maybe a barge and for exports, eventually a huge ship that sails around the globe. At every juncture, the grain gets mixed and there’s no way to segregate one harvest from the others. But there are ways to test what kinds of seeds are in a shipment. And that’s what China does—and among the things it monitors for is genetically engineered traits that have not yet been approved by its regulatory process.
Graham says when China closed its market, famers like him missed out on a payday. Graham blames Syngenta, the company that put the new kind of genetically engineered seeds on the market in the U.S.
“The decisions they make don’t just affect them,” Graham said. “They affect everyone, they affect all the farmers. And, you know, if it affects the farmers, it affects everyone.”
Graham and hundreds of other farmers from throughout corn country are suing Syngenta, holding the company accountable for lost profits. A class action could eventually make almost any farmer who grows corn eligible for a settlement.
Most farmers agree that the huge Chinese market cannot be ignored. But while some farmers focus on possible payments to recover losses, others worry that legal action could stymie future innovations.
“I think what’s taking place now is a bad situation being turned into a terrible mess by what I call the tractor-chasing troll lawyers,” said Tim Burrack, who farms in Northeast Iowa.
Burrack has received a half-dozen invitations to meet with lawyers to discuss joining the case, but has turned them down.
He cautions other farmers not to be short-sighted. They could lose a lot more down the road, Burrack says, if Chinese regulators continue to be slow to approve new traits and remain willing to reject all U.S. corn. Burrack says what’s at stake is the seed companies’ willingness to invest in innovation.
“Why would a company bring forth a product if it isn’t approved in China, with the threat of being sued here at home?” he asked.
Syngenta is also asking that question, says Duane Martin, the commercial traits lead for Agrisure, the Syngenta brand that uses the trait that caused the recent problem in China.
“We certainly want to sound the alarm that this is a potential threat to continued innovation for U.S. growers,” Martin said, “whether it’s in corn or any other major crop.”
Syngenta denies any wrongdoing and says the lawsuits are without merit, but lawyers continue to prepare the farmers’ cases.
The real problem, say many observers including some farmers and federal officials, is that the American and Chinese regulators don’t approve new technologies at the same time. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says talks are ongoing to address those differences.
“We are in the process, obviously, of continuing to work with a number of our foreign customers to create a regulatory system and process that’s more aligned and more synchronized,” Vilsack said.
The specific hurdles coming from China will be discussed at a meeting later this year, Vilsack said.
Meanwhile, China has approved the seeds that caused the recent trouble. So what farmers plant now should be available to feed hungry cattle in China come harvest time.