By Tim Burrack: Arlington, Iowa
You’ve heard of ambulance-chasing lawyers who seem to turn up at accident scenes whenever they think they can convert a fender-bender into a contingency fee.
Get ready to meet the tractor-chasers: a gang of attorneys on the hunt for clients in corn country. They’re trying to find farmers who will join a lawsuit against a seed technology company.
It’s a rotten bargain that makes vague promises about a possible payoff but instead threatens the future of agriculture. Farmers should reject it. The whole thing is a terrible mess.
I first heard about the lawsuit a few weeks ago, when one of these lawyers visited my small town in Iowa. He seemed to offer an irresistible deal for corn growers: In exchange for our signatures on legal documents, he promised to pay our filing fees. At an undetermined point in the distant future, he said, we might receive compensation checks to make up for a decline in corn prices.
He also added that he’d take 40 percent of any settlement.
On the surface, it sounded like a no-brainer. At worst, we’d never hear from him again. At best, we’d all get a little money.
Here’s the problem: Suing a seed technology company sends the terrible signal that whenever they or any other agricultural business encounters a regulatory hiccup, the farmers who benefit from its work will litigate.
That’s bad enough, but it gets worse: A successful lawsuit essentially would give China veto power over the technological innovations that American farmers need.
The controversy started in 2013, when China refused to accept a shipment of corn from the United States, on the grounds that it contained a trait for pest resistance that Chinese regulators had not yet approved.
China’s logic was self-serving: U.S. regulators had approved the corn in 2010, so there was no possible safety or environmental concern. Moreover, China had been importing the corn without complaint. This was no smuggling operation.
China’s true objective was to weasel its way out of purchase contracts—that is, to renege on its obligations—and the bit about regulatory approval was just a face-saving excuse.
What happened next hurt businesses and American farmers: The price of corn dropped.
The price of corn fluctuates every day, of course, based on a range of complicated variables that influence supply and demand. Although we often have a handle on the large trends that shape the overall price of corn, it’s impossible to know with any precision all of the factors that influence it.
So although it’s safe to say that China’s decision probably caused the price of corn to fall a few cents per bushel, in a reduction that affected the bottom line of corn farmers like me, we can’t know exactly how much it cost us. Trying to figure it out in a courtroom, as the lawyers propose, is the economic equivalent of filling out your NCAA basketball tournament bracket by consulting a Magic 8-Ball.
Moreover, the lawsuit distracts us from what should be a major objective of trade diplomacy: compatible regulations between the United States and China, so that when American regulators determine that a new variety of corn is ready for commercialization, China will accept the decision without delay.
The lawsuit sends exactly the wrong message. Rather than condemning China for its two-faced behavior and its broken regulatory system, the litigation puts farmers in the bad position of attacking a seed company whose innovations have improved the business of agriculture.
Farmers and consumers are much better off than they were a generation ago, before the biotech revolution developed new methods of delivering safe and healthy food from farm to fork in economically and environmentally sustainable ways.
We’ll continue to reap the innovative advantages of genetic modification and other approaches—but not if we let lawyers who seek to fatten their bank accounts build obstacles to research and investment, or if we sue some of our best allies whenever China or any other country wants to break a contract.
Farmers who join the lawsuit are thinking about a short-term gain for themselves rather than a long-term benefit for agriculture. A recent editorial published in the Grand Island Independent (Nebraska) says it very well: “A lawsuit that risks the long-term spirit of innovation to appease the short-term frustration of corn producers would appear ill-conceived.”
As farmers, we need to stick together. We should resist the trolling lawyers who are fanning the flames and refuse to sign up with the tractor-chasers.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). The author did not collaborate with any seed technology companies when writing this op-ed.