Earlier this week, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Larta Institute hosted this year’s Ag Innovation Showcase. Husch Blackwell LLP was proud to sponsor and have several of our attorneys attend this event. This year’s attendance surpassed 400 and registration was closed due to excess demand.

The Ag Innovation Showcase is an annual event that features the latest developments that will impact the future of agribusiness. This year’s presenters included a Husch Blackwell client and other start-up companies with inventions and ideas ranging from a mobile-to-cloud platform for storing and analyzing farm data to the use of new biological solutions. Another session focused on the high demand area of sustainable solutions in the agricultural field

The Showcase serves as an opportunity for industry members to not only learn about emerging technologies, but it also provides an opportunity for startups to present their companies to venture capital and other funding sources eager to invest in the next generation of successful agricultural companies.

On October 3rd, corn growers in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska filed multiple class action lawsuits against Syngenta related to MIR162, the Agrisure Viptera trait.  The class actions come on the heels of similar lawsuits filed by Cargill and Trans Coastal Supply Company in mid-September based on Syngenta’s commercialization of MIR162 in the United States prior to obtaining import approval from China, a major export market for U.S. corn and an ethanol byproduct called dried distillers grain with solubles (DDGS). 

Syngenta initially sought importation and cultivation approval from China’s Ministry of Agriculture in 2010, but China never approved MIR162 for importation or cultivation.  In the United States, however, commercial production of MIR162 began after the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated MIR162 in April 2010. 

In November 2013, China began enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy for the presence of MIR162 in corn and DDGS imports by rejecting shipments of corn and DDGS from the United States that contained trace amounts of MIR162.  In the following months, U.S. corn exports to China remained significantly curbed, while trade of DDGS temporarily resumed after the initial disruption.  In June 2014, however, China announced that new import permits would not be issued for DDGS from the United States.  The loss of China as a major export market, in conjunction with record production, caused a drop in U.S. corn prices that set the stage for the lawsuits brought against Syngenta.

In the recently filed class actions, the growers allege that Syngenta’s sale of MIR162 in the United States without import approval from China detrimentally impacted domestic corn prices by causing U.S. corn to be effectively excluded from China.  The growers further allege that Syngenta misrepresented its progress in obtaining approval of MIR162 from China’s Ministry of Agriculture and downplayed the importance of China as an export market.  Cargill and Trans Coastal have raised similar questions about liability for the commingling of commodity crops in the grain handling system in separate lawsuits.  Cargill and Trans Coastal allege that Syngenta’s contamination of the corn and DDGS supply with MIR162 has caused the companies to incur losses of $90 million and $41 million, respectively.  

In response, Syngenta has asserted that it fully complied with all of its regulatory obligations in the commercialization of MIR162 in the United States.  Syngenta has also reiterated that it believes that growers have a right to access approved new technologies that may increase productivity and profitability.   

The Agricultural Research Service arm of the USDA recently published research conducted by one of its plant physiologists, Russ Gesch, on the subject of early planting of coated seeds.  Gesch’s research confirmed what seed producers and coating resellers have claimed, “sowing seeds protected by a thin polymer layer can help northern Corn Belt farmers optimize spring planting schedules.” 

Gesch’s research involved “coated seeds [that] were covered with a temperature-activated polymer that prevented water from reaching the seed until the soils were warm enough for germination and emergence.” 

The research suggests that planting coated seeds in early Spring can help farmers “accelerate their production schedules by planting coated seeds in no-till fields in the early spring. But Gesch and Sharratt also found that coated soybean seeds planted in late spring were less successful because they were exposed to soil temperatures that were too high for successful germination and establishment.” 

As future seed coating offerings are launched in the market, USDA research on their effectiveness will be of interest to many in the industry.