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I said Syngenta wasn’t listening to farmers about GMO corn—Maybe I was wrong

Well, that was interesting. In writing for the Genetic Literacy Project, I have tried give the perspective of a farmer and spur discussion about genetically modified foods. I didn’t expect to get a company stirred up enough to call me directly as Syngenta just has. It was polite, nearly enjoyable, conversation and one that I’m thrilled to have with them.

In response to my last article, “New twist on the China-Viptera GMO corn controversy: Customers are talking—is Syngenta listening?” Syngenta took exception to a couple of issues that I raised. Now, I can honestly say, “Yes, Syngenta is listening.” After a long conversation with Pat Steiner, the head of Syngenta’s Corn Portfolio, I’m left with a new impression. Syngenta is listening and they believe they are taking the right path.

Syngenta has a strong belief that they are bringing several unique and needed products to the market in two GM corn traits, Viptera and Duracade, but the trade issue with China is a thorn in their side. Not lost in this discussion, and one that I did not fully discuss in the original piece, is the fact that China continues to accept corn from South American that has a much higher likelihood of containing the Viptera trait without hesitation. As I mentioned before, the rejection of the identical corn from US suppliers might have political undertones. This revelation just highlights the fact even more.

The stance China has taken regarding Viptera is even more puzzling than it appears on the surface. Syngenta confirmed to me that the original submission for approval of Viptera went well. Syngenta also indicated the reports from the Chinese regulatory agency in charge of approval had been going positive as well. from the Chinese. Then something changed. It’s not clear happened, but the Chinese have hit the pause button with no immediate sign of proceeding. All I know is that Viptera is still not approved for import to China and Syngenta is working diligently to see that it does get fully approved.

Probably the biggest point of contention from Syngenta in regard to the original article was their view that I drew a parallel between the Starlink fiasco and Viptera. I don’t think I compared the two directly, but Syngenta seemed to think so. It’s a very touchy subject within the agricultural community, and it probably stung a little to compare the Starlink fiasco to the potential of something similar happening with anyone’s product. Ok, I get it.

To be fair, Starlink was only approved for animal feed animal use in the US. It was never approved for food use. Nor was it approved for import to any of our main trading partners. On the other hand, Viptera is fully approved for food and feed use. Currently, Viptera is approved for export to Canada, Mexico, Japan, the EU, South Korea and many other countries. The only country not accepting it for import is China.

Sure, I could have picked a better analogy, but you get the idea. A product unapproved for export to certain countries can still have a potentially negative effect on trade. Those negative effects could cost farmers money through the loss of potential buyers. As farmers are estimating much thinner profit margins for 2014 and beyond, I don’t want to take any buyer out of the picture.

One of the more positive things to come out of the conversation was that Syngenta has negotiated an agreement with grain buyer Gavilon to work with farmers who wish to grow Viptera-traited corn but have concerns about where to market it. Gavilon has agreed to purchase the corn at market price, and will segregate it to make sure it does not get into any export channel that could lead to China. My hat is off to Syngenta for being pro-active on that front, and to Gavilon for stepping up to the plate to create a market for the grain. Well done, fellas! What is the downside? The nearest Gavilon grain terminal is about a two hour truck ride away. This is not a practical solution for my operation.

Hopefully, farmers will listen closely to their customers and make the correct decision for their own operation. If ADM, Cargill and Bunge say they don’t want to buy grain containing the Viptera or Duracade traits, we must listen. It is our choice is to grow corn with these Syngenta traits and market them somewhere else, or not grow them if our main markets are to one of those three-grain buyers.

I’m thrilled to know that Syngenta is listening even if at times we speak a slightly different language.

In the end, it’s still each farmer’s choice, and one that has to be considered wisely.

Dave Walton, a contributing columnist to the GLP, is a full-time farmer in Cedar County, Iowa growing GM and non-GM corn, soybeans, alfalfa and pasture on 500 acres of the world’s most productive soil.

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