Recent lawsuits against seed companies have caused confusion about the role of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. ICGA is not involved in any way with the litigation currently being pursued related to the release of biotechnology events, according to a statement issued by ICGA last week. "The plaintiffs in these lawsuits are individual farmers acting on their own behalf and are in no way representative of the position of Iowa Corn Growers Association or National Corn Growers Association," says the press release. "Farmers contemplating joining these lawsuits should seek independent legal counsel to answer questions."
"ICGA and NCGA's positions are guided by policy, developed by our farmer-members, that supports access to all technologies allowing growers to improve the economic and environmental performance of their farms. Through our 'Know Before You Grow' program, we have helped farmers maintain access to valuable export markets and the biotechnology-enhanced traits they need to grow a healthy, abundant crop."
ICGA encourages farmers to seek independent legal advice
"The Iowa Corn Growers Association cannot provide legal advice or represent you in this case," said ICGA president Jerry Mohr. "We encourage farmers to seek independent legal advice to answer questions about the lawsuits."
ICGA through NCGA works directly with seed companies and traders to maximize farmers' access to technology while maintaining market access. Mohr says, "We believe proper stewardship is a key consideration, and we prefer voluntary decisions to meet the needs of farmers, seed companies and grain companies rather than deferring to court or legislation."
For more information about Iowa Corn's position or the Know Before You Grow program, Mohr suggests visiting iowacorn.org/.
Farmers asking whether they should join class action lawsuit
Specifically, farmers are wondering whether or not they should join a class action lawsuit a group of attorneys is organizing to file against Syngenta. The attorneys are advertising on radio encouraging farmers to contact them and join the suit.
At a recent meeting put on by a law firm in Iowa, 25 central Iowa farmers attended. They were asked to join "thousands of other farmers in the U.S." in suing Syngenta seed company for actions that allegedly caused corn prices to plummet, resulting in revenue losses estimated in the billions of dollars.
Benjamin Ennen, an attorney with Fenchel, Doster & Buck in Algona and Britt, told farmers at the meeting at a restaurant in Adel on March 27 that Syngenta sold genetically-engineered Agrisure Viptera seed corn, also known as MIR 162, before it was approved in China. Traces of the trait were found in U.S. corn shipments to China, resulting in China rejecting loads and putting a temporary halt to all U.S. corn and dried distillers grain shipments to China.
Lawyers filing the lawsuits are encouraging farmers to join
More than 100 million bushels of U.S. corn expected to be sold to China in 2013 and 2014 didn't get sold, which caused carryout stocks to swell by 15% in 2013 alone, Ennen claims. That depressed corn prices which he believes Syngenta should make right with farmers. "The biggest thing is Syngenta knew or should have known what would happen," says Ennen, who also farms at Buffalo Center and is a plaintiff.
Syngenta has denied wrongdoing, saying Viptera was approved in the U.S. in 2010 and in other countries. In a previous statement, the company said growers have the right to plant approved traits if they wish. However, Ennen says that doesn't negate Syngenta's negligence from commercializing a trait it knew wasn't approved by China, one of the largest importers of U.S. corn, and the consequences that followed.
Ennen, along with attorneys in Minnesota and Texas, are representing more than 3,000 farmers who have already filed lawsuits against Syngenta in an attempt to recoup losses. Many more farmers are expected to sign up. Ennen and his colleagues held over 50 informational meetings March, in which representation contracts were handed out in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota. Hundreds of other farmers have reportedly filed lawsuits with other law firms. Cargill, ADM and Trans Coastal Supply Company have sued Syngenta for damages as well.
China eventually did approve import of Viptera corn trait
Corn prices dropped from $7 per bushel to $3.50 per bushel in 2014. Ennen admits multiple market forces played a role in the decline, though he believes Syngenta is responsible for some of it. To what extent is debatable. The goal is a judgement of $1 per bushel for farmers, he says.
China did approve Viptera eventually, in December 2014 and lifted its ban. But Ennen says the damage was already done. The firm ignored warnings and consequences of selling the trait (comingling and cross pollination), engineered to control more than a dozen pests such as black cutworms, without Chinese approval to the detriment of U.S. farmers, he says.
Clients are still being accepted for mass tort litigation. Ennen recommends farmers decide if they want to join by the end of spring to avoid the statute of limitations from running out. Mass tort means numerous plaintiffs against one or a few corporate defendants in state or federal court. It's different than a class action suit in which one person or several people sue on behalf of a larger group of people.
Anyone who raised and sold corn in 2013 and 2014 can sue
Ennen believes mass tort (four to 10 cases will likely be argued that will determine the fate of the rest) is the best chance for an equitable settlement. But there's no guarantee that will happen. Anyone who grew corn and sold it in 2013 and 2014 is eligible to sue, he says.
There's no upfront cost for farmers and attorneys only get paid if they win. Farmers receive 60% of any judgement and attorneys keep the rest. If the $1 goal is achieved, that means farmers will receive 60 cents for every bushel raised in 2013 and 2014. Documentation is required. That could mean thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for farmers with at least 1,000 acres of corn each year.
Don't confuse "Iowa corn growers" with "Iowa Corn Growers Association"
Attorneys have been trolling the state since early this year, looking for farmers to join the lawsuit against Syngenta. "If you grow corn in Iowa they refer to you as an Iowa corn grower. As far as our ICGA organization is concerned, these attorneys who are trying to recruit farmers are leaving the word 'association' off, but confusion is resulting in the countryside," says Mohr.
"We want to make it clear what our ICGA position is," he adds. "We are not involved in the lawsuit. We are not going to give growers any advice on the lawsuit. We're neutral on technology lawsuits. We sent out the press release last week to let people know what ICGA's position is, to clear up any confusion."
Joining or not joining this lawsuit is each farmer's own decision
Mohr says ICGA staff members have talked to certain law firms' attorneys and some of them have been very cooperative in changing their message to make sure they weren't confusing the public regarding ICGA being mentioned in radio ads or at meetings. Meanwhile, the recruiting process is still going on. "If you are an attorney involved in this lawsuit, you are going to try to get as many farmers as you can to join the suit," notes Mohr. "We just want to remind all growers that if you do this, it's your individual decision. ICGA has nothing to do with it. We are a policy-driven organization and we have no policy on lawsuits. We are neutral on this Syngenta lawsuit."
The Iowa Corn Growers Association is an 8,000-member strong grassroots-driven organization, headquartered in Johnston, Iowa, serving members across the state, and lobbying on ag issues on behalf of its farmer members to create opportunities for long-term Iowa corn grower profitability.