Syngenta agrees to settle U.S. farmer lawsuits over GMO corn

(Reuters) - Syngenta AG SYNN.S said on Tuesday it agreed to settle U.S. farmer lawsuits stemming from its decision to commercialize a genetically modified (GMO) strain of corn before China approved importing it, and a person familiar with the matter said the payment would be close to $1.5 billion.

The logo of Swiss agrochemicals maker Syngenta is seen on a farm in the village of Geispitzen, France June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

The settlement does not apply to lawsuits filed by U.S. grain handlers Archer Daniels Midland Co ADM.N and Cargill Inc [CARG.UL] against the Swiss seed maker, spokespeople for the three companies said.

Cases brought by farmers in Canada are also still pending, Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said.

Syngenta confirmed it has reached a settlement, without confirming the financial terms. The accord came amid a trial in Minnesota state court that began earlier this month in which around 22,000 farmers were seeking $400 million.

A federal jury in June ordered Syngenta to pay $217.7 million to more than 7,000 Kansas farmers who blamed it for causing them catastrophic damage after Chinese officials began refusing U.S. corn shipments in 2013.

The settlement was first reported by Bloomberg News.

“The proposed settlement would allow both sides to avoid the uncertainty of ongoing litigation,” Syngenta said in a statement.

Plaintiffs lawyers representing corn farmers in the federal litigation in a joint statement confirmed the existence of what they called a “preliminary settlement framework.” They did not detail financial terms.

In 2010, Syngenta began selling a strain of insect-resistant GMO corn called Agrisure Viptera in the United States.

Lawyers for the corn farmers said Syngenta negligently commercialized the seeds before obtaining import approval from China, then a major buyer of U.S. corn.

Chinese authorities ultimately rejected millions of tonnes of the U.S. corn imports before the country later approved Viptera for import in December 2014.

More than 90 percent of corn grown in the United States, the world’s top supplier, is genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The loss of the Chinese market caused U.S. corn prices to plummet, the farmers’ lawyers said.

Syngenta denied wrongdoing. It said at the time that no company had ever delayed launching a U.S.-approved corn product in the United States just because China had yet to approve its import.

It also said the decline in sales to China was offset by exports to other countries.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, additional reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; editing by Dan Grebler and Cynthia Osterman