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Molly Thornton
Molly Thornton

In-House Counsel 2021: Molly Thornton

The United States’ relationship with China is usually fraught to some level, but one thing remains constant: They want U.S. corn.

That lucrative commodity was jeopardized, though, in 2013, when China began rejecting nearly all shipments of corn from the United States. Why? The corn had been contaminated with a genetic trait that was not approved for import into China.

When that happened, Cargill had more than 30 vessels — at 68,000 metric tons each — of corn bound for China. In addition to rejected shipments, China refused to purchase U.S. corn until late 2017, when Syngenta’s genetic traits finally obtained Chinese import approval. Cargill became the first to sue Syngenta Seeds Inc. for commercializing its corn seeds before the product obtained import approval from China. It was Syngenta’s seed products, said Cargill, that made China reject the corn.

The case landed on Thornton’s desk not long after she returned from parental leave.

“We had first to assess Cargill’s loss, and the legal theories available to us to hold Syngenta responsible,” she said. “And that meant not only holding them accountable for the losses they caused to Cargill and Cargill’s farmer customers, but also to ensure appropriate behavior in the future.”

Cargill’s witnesses testified in class-action trials that resulted in a $217 million verdict against Syngenta on behalf of a class of Kansas farmers, followed by a $1.5 billion settlement for U.S. corn farmers. (Cargill’s suit against Syngenta is still pending.)

Apart from the verdict and the settlement, the federal cases help establish new law addressing a duty of care on the part of biotech companies and preemptive force of federal law to protect farmers, exporters and grain handlers from third-party claims.

Once Syngenta’s traits were finally approved in 2017, China was able to purchase U.S. corn once again.

“That market is much more stable,” said Thornton.

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