A recent settlement in a class action lawsuit against Syngenta AG may be the largest monetary award to-date in a court case involving agriculture. Syngenta has agreed to pay $1.51 billion to the members of a class of U.S. farmers who either grew corn or rent land for growing corn.
The subject of the case was Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera corn, a strain that had been genetically modified to be resistant to insects. While Viptera had been approved in 2010 for sale in the United States, it did not have such acceptance in corn markets worldwide, which class members allege was responsible for economic chaos within the U.S. corn market.
Planting Seeds of Discord
Syngenta claims Viptera had clear benefits for farmers since it was resistant to insects and could lead to increased and higher-quality corn production. Before selling this GMO strain, the company said it had “obtained import approval from major corn importing countries.” The problem was, however, that in 2013 the corn had not yet been accepted for import by China. Syngenta began selling Viptera to farmers prior to Chinese approval, which proved disastrous because China is a major buyer of corn from U.S. growers.
Farmers who were part of the class action suit said many types of corn, including Viptera, were mixed together when they were shipped to China in 2013. Because the corn contained the unapproved MIR162 gene from Syngenta Viptera, the whole shipment was rejected. This refusal caused a catastrophic loss of $1 billion to the corn market in the United States.
Due to the rejection, the price of corn dropped for farmers across the country.
Corn Goes to Court
In September 2016, a Kansas state court case filed by four farmers was classified as a class action suit representing over 7,000 farmers. The judge and jury decided Syngenta had to pay the class $217.7 million, a verdict awarded in June 2017.
At the time of this ruling, there were seven more state class action suits in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. Since these cases had the same subject matter and legal questions, a federal judge grouped them together in July 2017 to become four federal trials.
Given the Kansas ruling and wave of litigation it was facing, Syngenta elected to settle the nationwide class action suit. This action was announced in September 2017, but the preliminary settlement was not announced until April 2018. Now that the amount has been made known, those who joined the class can file a claim.
Corn producers and distributors who sold corn in the 2013-14 through the 2017-2018 seasons may also file a claim, even if they were not part of the original suit. While this money may start to be distributed in early 2019, the judge must approve the settlement before that process can begin. Details on how to file a claim will be given to members of the class, and made available through the media, when the judge has given his final approval for the settlement. This is expected to happen by the end of the year.
In an age when corporate greed so often leaves consumers with little to no recourse, settlements like this one are cause for hope that people can fight big business interests and win. The drive for higher profits at the expense of ethical behavior must be punished. How refreshing when that actually happens.