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Syngenta agrees to settle GMO corn litigation

Syngenta's headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo courtesy Syngenta)

Reuters — Syngenta has agreed to pay close to US$1.5 billion to resolve lawsuits stemming from its decision to commercialize a genetically modified strain of corn before China approved importing it, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

The Swiss company confirmed that it has reached a settlement, without confirming the financial terms. The accord came amid a trial in Minnesota state court that began earlier this month in which around 22,000 farmers were seeking $400 million (all figures US$).

The settlement came after a federal jury in June ordered Syngenta to pay $217.7 million to more than 7,000 Kansas farmers who blamed it for causing them catastrophic damage after Chinese officials began refusing U.S. corn shipments in 2013.

The settlement does not apply to lawsuits filed by U.S. grain handlers Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill against the Swiss seed maker, spokespeople for the three companies said. Cases brought by farmers in Canada are also still pending, Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said.

Syngenta declined to confirm the dollar amount of the U.S. settlement, which was first reported by Bloomberg News, saying the parties agreed to keep the terms confidential pending its submission for court approval.

“The proposed settlement would allow both sides to avoid the uncertainty of ongoing litigation,” Syngenta said in a statement.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers representing corn farmers in the federal litigation in a joint statement confirmed the existence of what they called a “preliminary settlement framework.” They did not detail financial terms.

In 2010, Syngenta began selling a strain of insect-resistant genetically modified corn called Agrisure Viptera in the U.S. It started selling a second strain called Agrisure Duracade in 2013.

Lawyers for the corn farmers accused Syngenta of negligently commercializing the corn seeds before obtaining export approval in China, a major importer.

In 2013, Chinese officials detected Viptera in U.S. corn shipments. The country began rejecting shipments containing millions of tonnes of U.S. corn because they contained the strain, which was unapproved for import, the farmers said.

Nearly 90 per cent of corn in the U.S., the world’s top grains producer, is now genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as farmers embrace technology that helps kill weeds and fight pests.

The loss of the Chinese market caused U.S. corn prices to plummet, the farmers’ lawyers said. China did not approve Viptera until December 2014, while Duracade is still pending approval.

Syngenta denied wronging. It said at the time that no company had ever delayed launching a U.S.-approved corn product in the U.S. just because China had yet to approve its import.

It also said the decline in sales to China was offset by exports to other countries.

— Nate Raymond is a courts reporter for Reuters in Boston.

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