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Dangerous Liaisons: ChemChina’s Bid for Syngenta

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ChemChina wants to acquire the makers of atrazine, bee pesticides and Golden Rice

Switzerland-based Syngenta AG is best known for its top-selling herbicide, atrazine; for trying to fool the world into thinking its genetically engineered Golden Rice will save the world; and for taking out pollinators with its neonicotinoid pesticides.

The global agro-toxics corporation, which produces agrochemicals, seeds and GMOs, was formed in 2000, through the merger of Novartis Agribusiness and Zeneca Agrochemicals. The merger made Syngenta the world’s largest crop chemical producer by 2014, and also a world market leader in seeds and biotechnology.

Syngenta describes itself as an integrated “crop protection” business that sells herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and seed treatments (including bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides), and also a lawn and garden business that sells flowers, turf, landscape supplies and pesticides.

Syngenta operates in 90 countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, North America, Latin America and in the Asia Pacific. In late 2015, Syngenta had a total market capitalization of $37 billion.

In 2014, Monsanto tried to acquire Syngenta, a clear rival, for a reported $40 billion. Syngenta rejected the offer, partly because Monsanto’s behavior has made the Biotech Bully from St. Louis one of the most hated corporations on the planet. Less than two years later, Syngenta said “yes” to a similar offer from China National Chemical (also called ChemChina,) a state-owned enterprise (SOE), which offered to buy the Swiss agrochemical company for $43 billion.

ChemChina is an amalgam of chemical, oil processing, agrochemicals and tire and rubber Chinese firms that are largely in government hands.

The deal is one of three potential mega-mergers in recent months of chemical-seed-biotech giants. The others being Bayer-Monsanto and Dow Chemical-Dupont. As we recently noted about the proposed purchase of Monsanto by Bayer, the consolidations signal that the industry is not doing well.

“The crop chemicals industry is bound to consolidate because target companies are spending too much on research and development for new products,” admitted Monsanto’s Chief Operating Officer Brett Begemann during its bid for Syngenta last year. “Pressures on the industry” are causing declining profits said Begemann. In fact, times have been so rough, last year the New York Times reported that Monsanto, “has been diversifying, emphasizing more conventional breeding and moving into new businesses, such as using microbes to control pests and offering digital data to help farmers manage their fields.”

In April, analysts were bearish about Syngenta stock because of “continuous weakening of crop protection business and insecticide sales.”

While food safety and sustainability advocates oppose such vertically integrated models of patented seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for obvious reasons—they lock in supply chains of harmful foods and chemicals that imperil the environment, humans and other animals—the proposed buyout of Syngenta by a Chinese government-owned corporation raises a whole set of additional questions.  Specifically, a ChemChina purchase of Syngenta would be the biggest overseas Chinese acquisition in history, making China a multinational powerhouse in global agriculture in a way it has never been before. ChemChina’s takeover of Syngenta dwarfs China’s 2013 purchase of the U.S. factory farm meat giant Smithfield Foods for “only” $5 billion.

U.S. producers fear a China-owned Syngenta

U.S. agribusiness and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) view a China-owned Syngenta as an economic threat to current U.S. imports to China and commodity prices. “Inconsistency” and policies “not based on science” may move China to block imports of U.S. bio- engineered crops, said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack recently. “I have a watchful eye on all of this and continue to be extremely concerned about the way in which biotechnology and innovation is being treated and impeded,” he said.

Vilsack is no doubt thinking of China’s recent rejection of MIR 162 corn that U.S. farmers grew with Syngenta seeds, despite assurances from Syngenta that the seeds were pre-approved for China sales. Many lawsuits brought by U.S. producers have followed. Because of China’s rejection of two types of Syngenta GMO corn—Viptera and Duracade—“exports of U.S. corn were down some 85 percent since 2013,” says a complaint filed by farmer Jon Dereadt in Illinois 2015. China also rejected crops grown by U.S. farmers from Monsanto seeds in 2013, provoking more lawsuits.

These multinational consolidations are also being criticized by many U.S. farmers. A pork producer in North Dakota wrote in a letter to the Grand Forks Herald, noting China’s takeover of Smithfield Foods,  that “Shanghai Penguin Group of China has tried to buy the Kidman Ranch,” and such consolidations are “good only for the one doing the consolidating, never for the consumer or for the family farms producing Herald readers’ food.”

Ohio Farmers Union President Joe Logan agreed, asking, “Where are the Teddy Roosevelts and the trust busters of today?” to put a stop to such ag consolidations.  “Enough is enough,” he said.

Bad news for Syngenta’s flagship atrazine?

Most people associate Syngenta with its top-selling herbicide atrazine, a hormone-disrupting chemical, banned in Europe, but still the second most-used chemical in U.S. agriculture, only behind Monsanto’s glyphosate (Roundup). Atrazine is consistently one of the most frequently detected toxic crop chemicals in drinking water because of its wide use on Midwestern corn fields.

In response to organic and food safety advocates exposing the obvious health and environmental risks of Atrazine, Syngenta conducted shameless disinformation and smear campaigns against scientists reporting the dangers. In fact, Syngenta’s PR team investigated the press and “spent millions to spin news coverage and public perceptions” about atrazine’s safety, reported the Center for Media and Democracy. Syngenta especially tried to block citizen lawsuits to make Syngenta pay for removal of atrazine from drinking water systems.

In addition to viciously attacking the credibility of Dr. Tyrone Hayes, professor of Integrative Biology at University of California, Berkeley, whose research identified how atrazine demasculinizes and feminizes male frogs,  Syngenta planted ghost-written “scientific” papers by its paid operatives to make atrazine look safe. The company also  published a book in 2011 called “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health,” which attacked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and “harmful, unnecessary regulation.”

Syngenta’s tactics didn’t work. In June, the EPA announced that the amount of  atrazine being released into the environment in the U.S.  is likely harming most species of plants and animals, including mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

“In the terrestrial environment, there are risk concerns for mammals, birds, reptiles, plants and plant communities across the country for many of the atrazine uses,” concluded the 518 page report from the EPA. While corn growers and Syngenta quickly tried to discredit the report, the EPA assessment will, we hope, finally lead to tighter regulatory limits on the product.

Golden rice scam

One of the most audacious Syngenta ventures was Golden Rice, genetically modified to make pro-vitamin A in the endosperm and aggressively billed in 2000, as a cure for widespread vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

Created by Ingo Potrykus at the Institute of Plant Sciences in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg in 1999, the pair worked out a deal in which Syngenta could develop Golden Rice commercially, overseen by a “Humanitarian Board” which included Syngenta, the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID and public relations and marketing experts.

Backers of the initiative to address world hunger with Golden Rice included the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the European Community Biotech Programme, the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Helen Keller International.

Also helping Golden Rice was the International Rice Research Institute led by Gerald Barry, previously Director of Research at Monsanto.

Condemnation of the GMO rice product was swift and widespread. Critics pointed out that it was absurd to offer Golden Rice as the cure for vitamin A deficiency when there are plenty of alternative, infinitely cheaper sources of vitamin A or pro-Vitamin A, including green vegetables and unpolished colored rice, especially black and purple varieties which would also add essential vitamins and minerals.

Golden Rice critics also cited scientific evidence that Vitamin A uptake depends on dietary fats or oils, often lacking in the diets of poor people—without those oils, GMO rice is useless as a source of Vitamin A.  And they pointed out that Golden Rice will exacerbate the industrial monocultures of the Green Revolution, which obliterate agricultural biodiversity and soil fertility, and result in ever-worsening mineral and micronutrient deficiencies in our food. These are the main causes of hunger and malnutrition in the Third World, said critics, along with poverty—and these problems can’t be solved with technology and GMOs.

The whole idea of GE seeds is to make money,” said Sarojeni V. Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP). “We want to send out a strong message to all those supporting the promotion of Golden Rice, especially donor organizations, that their money and efforts would be better spent on restoring natural and agricultural biodiversity rather than destroying it by promoting monoculture plantations and genetically engineered (GE) food crops.”

“Vitamin A rice is a hoax, and will bring further dispute to plant genetic engineering where public relations exercises seem to have replaced science in promotion of untested, unproven and unnecessary technology,” agreed Dr. Vandana Shiva. Since the daily average requirement of Vitamin A is 750 micrograms, and one serving contains 30g of rice “one family member would consume the entire family ration of 10 kg. from the PDS in 4 days to meet vitamin A needs through ‘Golden rice.’ This is a recipe for creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it, Shiva said.

The website Food Freedom points out the similarities between Golden Rice to the “Sweet Potato Project,” launched by USAID and Monsanto in 2011, used as a Trojan horse to penetrate Kenyan markets. “Once in place, these regulations open the door for the biotech industry to bring in commercial, patented GE crops…[raising] serious equity concerns for both farmers and national governments as they become beholden to biotech giants and lose their rights to save and exchange seed,” according to the website.

Golden Rice could also be dangerous according to a number of scientists. The retinal it contains is reduced to retinol, or oxidized to retinoic acid which controls development of the nervous system, nerve differentiation and embryonic segmentation—making it a potential contributor to birth defects said David Schubert at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences La Jolla, California.

Sixteen years after its highly-publicized launch, even the scientific community has become skeptical of Golden Rice. “Heralded on the cover of Time magazine in 2000 as a genetically modified (GMO) crop with the potential to save millions of lives in the Third World, Golden Rice is still years away from field introduction and even then, may fall short of lofty health benefits still cited regularly by GMO advocates, suggests a new study,” according to Science Daily.

Syngenta’s other dangerous products

Sadly, for consumers and the environment, atrazine and Golden Rice are not the only controversial products sold by Syngenta. U.S. and European farmers have brought lawsuits claiming that toxicity from Syngenta’s GMO Bt 176 corn (which expresses an insecticidal Bt toxin derived from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis and a gene conferring resistance to glufosinate herbicide) has caused livestock deaths.

The charges originated with a German farmer who claimed his dairy cattle suffered mysterious illnesses and deaths after eating Bt 176. The farmer pointed to a feeding study allegedly commissioned by Syngenta that resulted in four cows dying in two days and abrupt discontinuation of the corn in dairy cow feed. Reports of similar deaths from Syngenta corn fed to livestock surfaced in the Philippines and India.

Like Bayer, Syngenta also makes neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of toxic chemicals responsible for the current bee genocide. Like Bayer, Syngenta is aggressively fighting regulation to phase out the dangerous chemicals. Syngenta’s application for a neonicotinoid pesticide was not approved in the UK 2014, a victory for environmental and bee activists.

Will the ChemChina-Syngenta deal go through?

While the Global Capital website announced in June that ChemChina had procured its needed financing and the deal is “pretty much done,” other sources remain skeptical.

According to the Diplomat website, the ChemChina offer to Syngenta “has sent government regulators in a tizzy, bringing into the limelight a little known American regulatory body called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Operating under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury Department, the committee is authorized to investigate foreign capital transactions and assess their possible national security implications for the United States.” A dealer breaker, says the Diplomat, could be how close some planned Syngenta’s U.S. plants would be to military bases.

In addition to CFIUS scrutiny, the deal must also be approved by the European Union’s own regulatory body, the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) of the European Commission, which could be tougher. In previous decisions, consolidations have been nixed by the body because the decision-making powers of Chinese companies in question were not “sufficiently autonomous from the Chinese state.” ChemChina is state owned.

Still, questions about the ChemChina deal and Syngenta’s history of unsafe products have not stopped the Swiss giant’s new product lines or its U.S. approvals. In 2015, Syngenta rolled out its Acuron herbicide, Solatenol fungicide and Orondis fungicide and this year, California approved Syngenta insecticide Arilon.

The time has come for the Millions Against Monsanto movement and concerned consumers worldwide to state the obvious: Syngenta is just as bad as Monsanto. We need to boycott foods, seeds and garden supply products tainted with atrazine, neonics and GMOs whether or not Syngenta changes its name to ChemChina. Our health and the literal survival of our bees, butterflies and biodiversity depend upon consumers and farmers worldwide rejecting not only GMOs, but the entire degenerative system of industrial agriculture and factory farming.

Martha Rosenberg is a contributing writer to Organic Consumers Association. Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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