Harmonizing biotech regulations
When Syngenta received deregulation status from USDA for the Agrisure Viptera trait for seed corn in April 2010, it began preparing for commercial production by corn farmers across the U.S. in 2011. The trait was cleared for export to key global markets as identified by a 2007 agreement of the Biotech Industry Organization and the National Corn Growers Association. China was not on the list of export markets in 2007, has not authorized Agrisure Viptera and is expected to import 2.0 million metric tons (MMT) of corn this year, with additional amounts of distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS) from corn ethanol dry mill plants. This has again raised the issue of harmonization of biotech corn regulations around the world.
Bunge North America, a major corn exporter, has posted signs at its receiving elevators that it will not accept Agrisure Viptera corn this fall because of concerns for the Chinese market. Syngenta has sued Bunge under various federal and state statutes that require buyers to treat farmers “in a fair and reasonable manner.” More recently, Cargill and ADM have announced they will not accept the corn at wet mill ethanol plants until it has been approved by the EU. Both companies sell wet mill by-products for livestock feed in international markets and, with prior written notification, both will work with farmers to secure domestic market opportunities. Consolidated Grain and Barge is also not accepting Agrisure Viptera corn.
Syngenta has secured access to export markets for Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan, which include most of the major corn and DDGS markets. Syngenta estimates that corn with the Agrisure Viptera trait accounts for less than 2 percent of U.S. corn acres in 2011. Finding a market is not a problem, but keeping it from being commingled and found unexpectedly in a shipment to a country where it is not approved is an issue. China is expected to be the seventh largest U.S. corn market this year, but small compared to Japan at 16.1 MMT and Mexico at 9.2 MMT.
The old phrase that “time is money” is particularly true for biotech seed companies. Traits can require up to ten years to move from concept to commercial use, including up to two years to be deregulated by USDA. If Syngenta waited for the expected early 2012 approval of Agrisure Viptera by China, the company would have lost two years of intellectual property rights protection and seed sales. Farmers were also ready to use the product that protects against 14 insect pests that Syngenta estimates cost corn farmers $1.1 billion each year.