Viptera GM corn fiasco

September 2012

Monsanto gets a lot of bad press for its GM-promoting tactics, but are the other biotech giants any better?

GM-free Scotland recently reported that Syngenta is facing criminal prosecution in Germany for with-holding evidence about one of its GM maize crops which has been linked to illness and death in cow feeding trials on both sides of the Atlantic (See DEAD COWS UNDER THE CARPET - August 2012).

At the end of last year, Syngenta was also in hot water in America after it gave away bags of its new 'Viptera' GM corn seed throughout the Midwest.

Viptera is the next generation of insecticidal GM crop following on from Bt. It contains MIR162, another gene copied from the bacterium Bacillus thuringienses, but one which taps into a different class of toxic protein. Syngenta has developed some 70 hybrids of Viptera as two- and three-trait stacks.

The problem in 2011 was that farmers who grew crops from the free seed discovered too late that major seed buyers, Bunge and CGB, didn't want it because their major overseas customer, China, had not approved it.

Independent seed retailers who had supplied Viptera to their customers weren't forewarned of the grain companies' planned rejection either. The first they knew about it was from local grain buyers. Calls to Syngenta at the time were not returned.

Syngenta was quick to try to force Bunge into acceptance through the courts, but the verdict was that “Bunge's decision to reject Viptera corn at all of its locations was a legitimate and reasonable business decision”, and that accepting the GM corn “... would impose prodigious costs on Bunge for a situation that Bunge did not create”.

The farmers who were conned into planting Viptera found themselves with multiple problems in addition to the financial ones. These included identifying, recording, segregating, and storing or destroying their harvest, besides issues in fulfilling delivery contracts. Because nearby crops could be contaminated, their neighbours faced the same problems. Even corn destined for ethanolic fuel plants could be caught up in the mess because one of its by-products, dried distillers grain (DDG), is sent for export.


No doubt the Viptera fiasco has now been ironed out, in time for this year's harvest. However the tale involves two breathtaking lessons.

The land-mark US legal ruling seems to have slipped through without much notice. It sets a precedent whereby a food or feed company can reject legal, but gene-polluted, produce purely on the grounds that it 'would impose prodigious costs' in a situation it had not itself created: in other words, all you really need is a substantial level of consumer rejection. This shouldn't be difficult, especially if you have dead GM-fed cows on two continents to explain.

Secondly, imagine how this story would unfold if the reason for the sudden unexpected rejection of a whole sector of commodity GM hybrids was on safety grounds? Re-read the final paragraph above and consider all the problems farmers would face. With the plethora of unnatural 'Bt' and 'Viptera' toxic proteins stacking up in our food chain, this scenario is not remote.

  • Sophia Pearson, Syngenta oses Court Ruling Against Bunge Unit Over Modified Corn Lawsuit, Bloomberg, 27.09.11
  • Dr. Ignacio Chapela, When Trolls Do Fight, GM Watch, 3.11.11
  • Rich Keller, Vipera corn being rejected by grain buyers, AG Professional, 15.08.11
  • Kurt Lawton, Viptura Lack China Approval, RFD TV, 12.08.11
  • Stu Ellis, What Are You Doing With Your Viptera Corn?, 9.09.11

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