From Indiana to Louisiana, a movement among thousands of corn farmers in the United States is trying to hold a Swiss GMO agribusiness giant to account for willful deceit and is making steady progress in court. According to these lawsuits – which may soon become class action – Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agrochemical companies, deliberately misled small farmers into thinking that the genetically modified Viptera corn it was pushing on them would be approved for export to China. When China’s unpredictable import authorities held off on granting approval and then turned back a shipment that contained Syngenta’s genetically modified crop, the glut of excess corn that farmers had on their hands caused prices to crash and resulted in nearly $6 billion in damages.
“I was really upset that this happened,” said Susan Taylor, a farm owner. “You work in good faith and you expect producers to act in good faith.” According to one lawyer involved in the case, “This is by far the largest agricultural lawsuit we’ve had in the US.” Tens of thousands of farmers spread across 22 states have already filed claims against Syngenta, and that number is expected to keep growing.
While the company claims “other factors” were responsible for the collapse, emails between its own top officials reveal an organized effort to tamp down concerns over just how long the approval would take. In 2012, farmers saw that Chinese approval for Viptera had still not come through and began returning the genetically engineered seeds to Syngenta, knowing they wouldn’t be able to export unapproved corn to one of the world’s most important markets. This apparently spurred a panic up the Syngenta corporate ladder, with the company’s head of global external affairs instructing colleagues in April 2012 to tell farmers that “China’s Viptera approval is done and is only waiting for the administrative signatures.” CEO Mike Mack took the advice a few days later, saying final approval was only a “matter of a couple of days.” As it turns out, a couple of days meant December 2014.
While the deception Syngenta inflicted on US farmers was unacceptable, the way it treats farmers and communities in more vulnerable parts of the world can be far worse. In Brazil in 2007, for example, local farmers who were peacefully occupying a GMO research plant owned by Syngenta as a protest against industrial agriculture were met with lethal violence by a private militia allegedly working for the Swiss corporation. Valmir Mota de Oliveira, 34, was a member of the militant movement Via Campesina, which had exposed the environmental crimes of Syngenta in Brazil. The group was protesting against the company’s disdain for environmental regulations, having tested GMOs within the mandated 10-kilometer buffer zone next to the Iguazu National Park, when de Oliveira was killed in October 2007 with two shots from point-blank range and others were seriously wounded. The court case against the Swiss company dragged on for years, until being settled in November 2015. According to Judge Pedro Ivo Moreiro, the 2007 incident was “a massacre disguised as repossession of property,” after it emerged that the private militia worked for a company called NF Seguranca, a security service used by Syngenta.
Closer to home, Syngenta’s record on environmental protection is a disheartening one. The company is a major supplier of atrazine, an herbicide that has been banned in the European Union due to the harm it inflicts on wildlife and people. Even small concentrations of atrazine have been shown to alter the sexual development of male frogs, while exposure during the development phase of an organism’s brain or reproductive organs could have even more serious effects. When Tyrone Hayes – a researcher who was hired by Syngenta to study the effects of atrazine – broke off his ties with the company and moved on to continue his work at Berkeley, the company embarked on an elaborate PR campaign to discredit Hayes and cast doubt on his research. It was Hayes’ research that illustrated atrazine’s impact on frogs.
Other pesticides peddled by Syngenta, known as “neonicotinoids” (and also banned in the EU), can paralyze insects and have been linked to the mass death of honeybees. Syngenta’s brand of neonicotinoid, known as thiamethoxam, is a $627 million asset for the company.
The corn farmers’ court battle might be moving forward, but US consumers are still waiting for a major political leader to stand up to corporations like Syngenta. Right now, the likeliest candidate to do so appears to be presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Back in 2013, Sanders proposed an amendment to a farm bill (shot down by his colleagues) that would have clearly given states the option of requiring labels on food containing GMOs. Throughout his career in the Senate, Sanders has defended family farms, fought for dairy farms in his own state of Vermont and pushed for schools to use local products. He is also an outspoken advocate for affordable nutrition and undocumented farmworkers. His political record and current rhetoric about corporate accountability suggest that he may be a more willing ally than most politicians in the fight to protect workers’ and farmers’ rights by standing up to companies like Syngenta.
In a small (though unsatisfying) measure of justice for those farmers in Brazil and elsewhere, Syngenta’s shares have been cratering ever since the company spurned a proposed deal with Monsanto. In an effort to drum up interest and makes its own position look more tenable, Syngenta’s leadership courted Chinese state-owned company ChemChina, which agreed in early February to buy it for a record $43 billion – even if most GMOs are banned in China.
The takeover/bailout could still be derailed, if the main regulatory body, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), rejects it on national security grounds. According to CFIUS rules, Syngenta’s key US installations are built too close to military bases for the tie-up to pass approval and the government could ask the company to abandon them if the transaction is to be completed. This would be good news for embattled farmers in the United States, as Syngenta’s bottom line would be dealt a massive blow since the company generates a quarter of its income in North America.
A small but growing number of Syngenta stockholders are in open revolt over the company’s plans, upset over lost market value and the company’s failure to pursue negotiations with potential merger partners or buyers. As far as corporate malfeasance goes, Syngenta’s behavior over the past several years speaks to a company willing to go to extreme measures to silence and suppress both its critics and those most directly impacted by its pursuit of profit. Poisoning the environment and attacking vulnerable populations only serve to give Syngenta – and with it the industry as a whole – a bad name.