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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network.

Corn Lawsuits Underscore Chinese Influence on Midwest Farmers

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media
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.

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 US 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.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.