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Source: PioneerPlanet (November 29, 2000)
Leaders seek solutions for modified corn
Minnesota officials hope to isolate unapproved seed
Lee Egerstrom Staff Writer
With a biotechnology cloud hanging over the nation's corn crop,
Minnesota agriculture leaders began looking Tuesday at how they might
isolate their corn for different markets. At the same time, federal
authorities are exploring how to use existing corn supplies.
About two dozen Minnesota grain traders, farmers and life science
company representatives met at the state Agriculture Department in St.
Paul to explore how different corn varieties might be isolated in the
grain trade to preserve the identity of corn approved for human food
Concerns stem from a genetically modified corn seed called StarLink
grown in fields this summer. StarLink was not approved for human
consumption, but made its way into taco shells and other food
In Washington, a science advisory panel for the Environmental
Protection Agency began meetings to consider a request by Aventis
CropScience for temporary approval of its StarLink technology for
human consumption. A decision is possible by Friday.
Temporary approval would allow grain companies to market this year's
crop to all customers. Aventis has announced that it will no longer sell
the StarLink technology in any type of future corn seed.
But Paul Strandberg, a project manager for the StarLink problem at the
Minnesota Agriculture Department, said the ``damage has already been
done'' with certain export customers.
StarLink contains a technology that makes corn plants toxic to certain
insects and thus saves farmers the cost and health risks of spraying
pesticides. Aventis intended StarLink corn to be used for livestock feed
and never sought approval for its use in food products. There is no
scientific evidence that the corn is harmful to humans, although concern
exists that it could cause allergies.
Monsanto, a major biotechnology firm that sells genetically modified
corn seeds under several brands, said it will hold back a new corn
technology for an additional year and restrict sales next year of a
second new technology to prevent any additional fracas in world
markets over the safety of American-raised corn.
``We were blinded by our own enthusiasm,'' Monsanto chairman and
chief executive officer Hendrik Verfaillie told a farm group in
Washington on Monday.
Some Japanese and European buyers of corn or corn products have
balked at buying from U.S. grain companies unless they can receive
assurances it doesn't contain StarLink. Among issues raised are the
cost and the responsibility for testing the grain shipments.
StarLink genetic material has been discovered in several brands of taco
shells sold on the West Coast. More recently, a StarLink presence was
found in processed food made by a British food company.
This means that corn intended for livestock feed has found its way into
food channels, and it most likely is having an economic impact by
discouraging export sales, said Strandberg.
The biggest problem with isolating StarLink corn varieties is in Iowa,
where 40 percent of the suspected StarLink varieties were planted. But
not all of the corn is accounted for in Minnesota, either.
Mike Schommer, spokesman for the department, said 35,391 acres of
Minnesota farmland, out of 7 million total acres, were planted with the
varieties. ``That's not a huge percentage, but it's enough to allow the
corn to get commingled and people are concerned,'' he said.
The state Agriculture Department is in the process of creating a Web
site to give farmers guidance on seed varieties that have been cleared
for export to major customers. The Minnesota Extension Service also
pledged to help get news of seed uses and biotechnology out to farmers
as they make seed buying decisions for next spring, Strandberg said.
The group will meet again in December, he said. ``We have a good
grain marketing infrastructure in Minnesota that can isolate corn from
wheat and wheat from soybeans.''
A new system of grain marketing will need to separate different types of
corn and soybeans depending on their individual properties,
Strandbergsaid. That would involve using country elevators for different
types of grain.
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