Chinese Approval of Syngenta Agrisure Viptera

Seed biotechnology provides alternate corn rootworm resistance sources

Corn Rootworm Damage. Coutesy of IPM Images.

Viptera: Mir162

Last year Syngenta sold over 400,000 units of new Agrisure Viptera corn hybrids.  That is equivalent about 1.1% of the total U.S. corn area. The hybrids contain a new trait for insect resistance: Mir162. 2011 was the launch year. As it turned out, this sale was somewhat controversial because the trait was not approved by China at harvest time. When trait originators launch a new trait, they enter the murky areas of problems created by the asynchronous approvals of biotech traits in different countries. Usually the U.S. is first country to approve. In the case of Viptera, the trait has been approved for import into Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and the Philippines.  European approval is no longer expected at the release of a new trait. European approvals are so delayed by the approval process that Europe has essentially removed itself as an importer of US corn grain.

Back in 2009 when plans had to be made for a 2011 launch of Viptera, China was not expected to be important. It is not traditionally an importer of U.S. corn.  But since global food prices rose in 2008, the government of China has been under pressure to limit food price inflation. In the winter of 2010-2011 the government started to issue permits for the importation of American corn to be used to feed Chinese pigs and chickens to fill the pots of Chinese kitchens. This is a good thing for US corn producers. It provides another source of demand to keep the price of corn stable and high. It is good for the US balance of payments, because it provides a means to repatriate some of the money that the U.S. spends for Chinese manufactured goods. But achieving these good objectives depends on U.S. produced corn being acceptable to the Chinese government.

The Chinese approval system is much better than the approval system in Europe. It is predictable. The current negative is that it requires approval by another country before the approval process can start.  In the case of Mir162, the start of the Chinese process had to wait until Syngenta had approval for Mir162 in Brazil. After that Chinese approval takes about 2 years. In this case, Syngenta was able to apply in China in March 2010 and expects approval in March 2012. There will be a period of several months when the 2011 crop, with some Mir162 in it, could be sold to China, but would not be acceptable when it gets there.


International Grain Traders React

Last August some grain trading companies took note of the situation and announced that they would not receive Viptera corn: Bunge and Consolidated Grain & Barge (CGB).

Syngenta felt especially disappointed with this decision because in 2010 Monsanto launched a new traits without Chinese approvals. The 2010 launch was of MON89034 which makes up part of the Genuity VT Triple PRO from Monsanto and SmartStax from Monsanto and Dow. These launches were larger than those of the Syngenta Viptera traits in 2011. Syngenta sued Bunge under a number of laws. Syngenta said that Bunge attempted to block the legal sale of the Agrisure Viptera trait. Syngenta said that Agrisure Viptera had been sold in compliance with all U.S. regulatory requirements and U.S. industry guidelines. They asked for an injunction against Bunge’s refusal to receive the Viptera grain, but the court refused to issue the injunction. I have no understanding of the law on this issue, but I suspect that in the U.S. it is going to be hard to prove that a buyer does not have the right to choose what he buys regardless its regulatory status. On the other hand, I wish that Bunge had chosen not to refuse to take the Viptera grain.


Corn Producer Benefits

A number of interests besides Syngenta’s are being served by the launch of Agrisure Viptera. Mir162 has a new mode of action. The presence of this new mode of insecticidal activity in the market should help delay the development of resistance to the Bt traits which are currently widely used. The availability of multiple resistances in the Syngenta lineup will allow Syngenta to offer reduced refuge products which should increase farmer compliance with refuge requirements, and help again, delay the development of resistance to the corn borer BT’s in use. Increasing the durability of biotech insect resistance is even an assurance to Bunge and the other international grain traders that there will be grain to export from the US in the future, but in this case they were inclined to think of this trading year not the more remote future.

Syngenta had gotten into a similar controversy earlier. When Mir 604, Agrisure CRW, was launched in 2007, it was not approved in Japan. Syngenta came through on its promise to get Japanese approval before harvest, but without a month to spare. It was arguably poor judgment on their part to cut it so close, but I am sure that they knew more about the Japanese approval process than most of us do.  That decision was more controversial because there was no question about whether Japan would be buying US corn. They always do.


Future for the Seed Business

Given that Syngenta’s trajectory for the approval of Agrisure Duracade, 5307, expressing eCry3.1Ab, it is possible that international corn trade concerns similar to those for Mir 162 may appear in the future.  The Bt protein eCry3.1Ab has a mode of action which is different from other CRW Bt’s. Duracade will provide Syngenta the second corn rootworm trait which will allow them to market a complete in-house reduced refuge package like SmartStax in having reduced refuge requirments for both corn borer and CRW.  Syngenta plans to introduce this trait in 2014.

Given recent concerns with CRW resistance to Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1, the corn farmers of North America may have good reason to want that approval to avoid regulatory delays. Cry3Bb1 is expressed not only in the original Monsanto CRW trait, Mon863, but also in Mon88017, which is used in the SmartStax traits. Existence of CRW resistance in the field was confirmed in studies by Iowa State University Entomology professor Dr. Aaron Gassmann (Field-Evolved Resistance to Bt Maize by Western Corn Rootworm), the findings were taken seriously at the EPA in December of 2011 when the most recent approvals involving SmartStax and the refuge in a bag versions of SmartStax were made conditional on Monsanto developing plans to monitor CRW resistance and model the possible evolution of resistance to Cry3Bb1. The other CRW gene in the SmartStax package has not been reported to have resistance issues. That CRW gene is the same as the one used in Herculex Extra, DAS-59122-7 expressing Cry34Ab1.

In the best of all possible worlds for the seed industry, there would be some sort of mechanism for international regulatory approval of at least some agricultural biotech traits, harmonization. Given the European suspicions of agricultural biotechnology, government regulation and big business,it will not be possible for that to happen for any time in the foreseeable future. European rejection of agricultural biotechnology has achieved the status of a cultural belief that will no easily be changed. Science will not change the situation. Suspicion of science is part of the pattern.


Paul Christensen

Christensen Consulting


Seed Key Words:

Seed Industry, agricultural biotechnology, regulatory, Agrisure Viptera, Viptera, Syngenta, Duracade, European approval, China, Bunge, Chinese approval, SmartStax, Corn Rootworm, CRW, Resistance, corn rootworm resistance, harmonization, Seed Business.


About Paul Christensen

I am retired Coordinator of the Seed Technology and Business program at the Iowa State University Seed Science Center and Staff member of BIGMAP, the Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. I have also worked for Monsanto, DEKALB Genetics, and Funk Seeds International, which is now part of Syngenta, and worked for USAID in Africa. Much of my technical activity has been associated with product testing and development. As a University Faculty member, I was exposed to many forms of opposition to agricultural biotechnology and the commercial seed industry, and I think that I have developed a unique understanding of some of the philosophical opposition to modern plant technology. I have a well-developed understanding of the kinds of arguments used for and against seed and biotechnology regulation and policy. I have focused on corn, sorghum and sunflower.
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