Technology talk turns to here, and now

I'm finishing a three-day media event this week with the folks at Syngenta who've been doing their best to fill my head with all things new for the future of ag. They have a lot to talk about, from yield-increasing plant breeding to water-saving technologies. From a new three-mode-of-action herbicide to an aggressive nematode stopper. Where do I begin?

Perhaps the place to start is with the most current issue at hand, and in future blogs I'll deal with some of that other tech they showered us with. The most current topic? The Agrisure Viptera controversy.

Late in 2013 China started rejecting loads of DDGs found to contain the Agrisure Viptera trait. It caused a stir in the markets, and has created a lot of angst. And of course now it's also led to a series of lawsuits against Syngenta for the potential market impact of the import ban. And there are claims of economic impact on the market too. Syngenta claims the lawsuits are without merit, and we'll let the courts sort that one out. The challenge is what happened and why did this become a controversy?

Chuck Lee, who heads up the corn business for Syngenta, talked with us during the Syngenta media event and offered a candid assessment of the situation and their thoughts about ag technology and your access to it. "Let's wind the clock back to 2010," Lee says. "When we launched Agrisure Viptera we applied for approval in China, that was almost five years ago, a long time. In that time China has changed their requirements for approval of that trait, which was a challenge and frustration for us."

Lee reminded us that when the trait was launched the industry, and grain elevators, were excited. At the same time China was a net corn exporter, they weren't importing corn. And even when China started importing corn, they're not a major customer of the U.S. In fact, Lee notes China imports about 1% of U.S. corn and no more than 1% of DDGs. "It's not that China is an insignificant customer, but you need to see the big picture," Lee says.

He adds that the corn market is 85% domestic, and that most all other markets have cleared Agrisure Viptera for import - including Japan and much of Asia. Lee adds that through the introduction of the product the company was up front with growers and directed them to the Know Before You Grow website where they could check if the trait was approved for markets where corn might go.

"Farmers should have the right to use the technology they want for their farms, if it is approved for use in their country," Lee says. And before the China brouhaha elevators and companies were shipping the traited product into China with no problem. Lee also notes that Brazil has approved Viptera for use and they're shipping corn to China without trouble.

I'm not apologizing for Syngenta, there are issues that have to be worked out. The company has tried to be up front and the Chinese market targeted US DDGs first in part due to some local situations where they didn't want their farmers competing with the global source. One way to stop import was to impose the rules the Chinese had ignored for three years.

Lee notes that those political issues made Viptera the "right trait at the wrong time." No matter what you feel about the issue, the story is more complicated than many assume. Grain traders sold the traited corn to China and transported it trouble free for some time. The Chinese government singled out that issue but have not looked at other non-labeled traited crops also being sent into that market.

This episode did drive Syngenta to move toward a tighter approach for marketing Duracade through the help of Gavilon to handle logistics. There are now 1,200 outlets that will take Agrisure Duracade and make sure it only goes to approved markets. That process is a little complicated and those will be fine-tuned for the 2015 crop year. As for Agrisure Viptera? It's still not cleared in China, so know where your corn is going if you have used this above-ground pest stopping trait in your seed.

Going forward this episode won't stop the development of new traits. Lee says Syngenta believes farmers should have access to the traits they need and that shouldn't be governed by outside sources. Agrisure Viptera offers some lessons in global impact on local markets. Got a comment about this situation? Leave it below - you'll have to register first, but we'd like to know your thoughts on this topic.

It's a complicated issue and China has not approved a trait for input for five years. Does that mean you shouldn't have access to the latest tech? This is an issue for a range of new traits ahead.

In future blogs, I'm going to dig into some other tech Syngenta shared that you'll find interesting. Check back soon.

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