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Australia sues biotech company over misleading claims

Publication: 
Editorial Staff
chiefofficersnet

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has issued civil proceedings in the Federal Court alleging that biotech company Landmark Operations Limited, which trades as "Seednet." The ACCC alleges that Seednet made "false, misleading and deceptive claims in a fact sheet" relating to a variety of barley, known as "Compass," developed by Adelaide University and marketed and distributed by Seednet.

Adelaide University's biotech department develops new varieties of plant. Following development of a variety of barley known as "Commander," a second variety, called "Compass" was introduced. Seednet is licensed to sell the two varieties. Commander is, apparently, in widespread use. Seednet wanted to encourage farmers to switch to the new strain. It is alleged "from at least December 2014 to December 2016, Seednet misrepresented to farmers that Compass barley had strong straw; had better straw strength than Commander; had improved lodging resistance than Commander; and was better suited to early sowing, higher fertility paddocks and higher nitrogen rates than Commander."

The ACCC is polite. It says "By at least December 2014, Seednet had received information which made it (or ought to have made it) aware that Compass’ performance did not support
these representations." "At least" appears to be "at the latest," if the case is to make sense.

Worse, despite there being evidence that the strain was "rated very susceptible to leaf rust in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, and ranging up to very susceptible in South Australia under consensus ratings through the National Variety Trials program," Seednet's marketing ran, for a whole year after the findings were published, representations that Compass had a higher resistance to leaf rust than was, in fact, the case.

Potentially misleading marketing of new varieties of agricultural produce is a key issue that has been raised with the ACCC by farmers.

“Farmers have told us they suffer harm as a result of misleading marketing because, without correct information, they assume or are incorrectly advised that other factors such as the weather are to blame when crops don’t succeed or perform in the way that has been represented by suppliers,” ACCC Deputy Chairman "Mick" Keogh said.

“The sad fact of the matter is farmers often don’t have the time or money to pursue seed companies when products fail or don’t work in the way they should.”

“Lodging” is a term used to describe the tendency for some cereal crops with weaker stems to fall over as they mature and ripen. Crops that experience severe lodging can be difficult or impossible to harvest, resulting in reduced yields and increased harvesting costs. In many parts of Australia, arable farmers are in desperate financial straits with no significant rain for several seasons and, as they head into another hot summer after a dry winter, there is serious concern over the financial and mental health of many of the country's farmers. It's not only agriculture that's under threat. In the north of the country, lack of water is leading to the slaughter of otherwise healthy cattle which are showing signs of severe dehydration.

The ACCC says that Seednet envisaged that Compass would eventually replace Commander. Many grain varieties have a peak selling period, after which sales start to decline as newer varieties with improved performance characteristics come on to the market.

To look at that more simply, when products sell on a bell curve, seed sellers need to have one in the ascendant as one is in decline.

Landmark is one of Australia’s largest agribusiness companies and supplies a range of products including fertiliser, seed, farm services, wool, livestock and financial services. Seednet is Landmark’s Australian seed marketing business.

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