Starlink Corn Issue Will Result In More Systematic Grain Differentiation
By Tracy Sayler
The StarLink corn issue may not result in significant changes in transgenic crop research, but it will indeed place more grain industry attention on systematic differentiation, or the way transgenic
crops are handled from farmers’ fields to the marketplace.
Just recently, the National Corn Growers Association
urged growers who planted StarLink hybrids last year to make an extra effort to control possible volunteer StarLink corn in 2001. That may mean rotating to another
crop, or growing a herbicide-tolerant hybrid that allows farmers to control volunteer StarLink.
“The danger is volunteer StarLink corn pollinating surrounding non-StarLink corn plants, further compounding the problems of keeping StarLink out of the supply of U.S. corn,” says Ohio producer Fred
Yoder, chairman of the NCGA Biotech Working Group. “Rotation is the best choice,” he points out. “In an ideal situation for 2001, you’d rotate ground planted to StarLink last year into soybeans, oats, or some other
crop that will allow you to find and destroy volunteer corn. But if you’re locked into growing corn-on-corn you need to plant herbicide-tolerant hybrids that let you eliminate StarLink volunteers,” Yoder stresses.
The NCGA is warning farmers about the use of Roundup Ready hybrids to control StarLink volunteers. “Roundup Ready corn is not yet approved for
export to the European Union and is restricted from some domestic wet-milling markets. Check your primary corn market before selecting this control option,” Yoder emphasizes.
The recommendation on controlling StarLink volunteers is in addition to a separate statement issued by the NCGA, encouraging growers to plant seed that has been tested for Cry9C, the StarLink protein.
Some Overseas Buyers Asking for Non-Transgenic Proof
The StarLink corn issue has resulted in international and domestic buyers
becoming more concerned about transgenic foods and food safety—no food company wants to be involved in a product recall and suffer adverse press. Buyers are asking for proof of non-transgenic crop origin, and in the
last year, the National Sunflower Association has begun providing its members with a letter stating that U.S. sunflower is transgenic free. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing similar documentation upon
Saudi Arabia is one country that has banned imports of genetically modified grains and processed foods containing GMO products. “All imported
foodstuffs must be accompanied by authenticated health certificates indicating that they are free of any genetically modified elements and are fit
for human consumption,” according to the Saudi edict. This includes prepared foods that have one or more of its ingredients from GMO seeds.
The Saudis are the largest single country importer of U.S. corn oil.
Starlink Issue Will Help Other Grains Establish GMO Protocol
Leaders of crops that currently aren’t transgenic, such as wheat, are using
StarLink as an impetus for establishing a means for handing transgenic grain, if and when it becomes commercially available.
For example, at their recently held Wheat Industry Conference, the National Association of Wheat Growers, Wheat Export Trade Education Committee, and U.S. Wheat Associates joint committee on biotechnology
proposed the establishment of an advisory committee to work with Monsanto’s development of a closed-loop system to prevent co-mingling of genetically modified wheat with conventional wheat. The advisory
committee would involve other sectors of the wheat industry, including farmers, grain handlers, millers, bakers, and exporters.
Also endorsed were voluntary food labels indicating the presence or absence of biotechnology-derived traits, supporting the consumer’s right to
know and the food industry’s right to inform. Establishment of a reasonable tolerance for accidental co-mingling of genetically-modified and non-GMO grain was also adopted.
U.S. Wheat Industry on Biotech: Give Consumers Grain They Want
Although GMO wheat is being tested in research plot trials, no GMO wheat
is yet available commercially in the U.S. marketplace. The earliest that GMO wheat would be commercially released in the U.S. would be sometime between 2003 and 2005, and even then, consumer and customer
demand will play a key role in any GM wheat release.
The NAWG, WETEC, and USW have adopted a biotechnology position statement which in part says while biotechnological research holds great promise for the future, that the U.S. wheat industry “commits itself
absolutely to the principle that our customers’ needs and preferences are the most important consideration, and that we support the ability of our wheat customers to make purchases on the basis of specific traits.”
The U.S. wheat industry has pledged to work with all in the wheat sector to develop and assure that a viable identity preservation system and testing
program is instituted prior to commercialization of biotechnology products, and that international regulatory approval and customer acceptance is ensured prior to commercialization.
StarLink Sheds Light On Where Ag Might Be Headed
Bonnie Raquet, a spokeswoman for Cargill, says the company recently
announced that its policies for accepting conventional, specialty and genetically enhanced grain has not changed from last year. “Our AgHorizons
service centers will, for the most part, accept all the approved varieties. If a producer has a variety that is not approved in the U.S. or elsewhere, we are
requiring that he or she advise us in writing,” says Raquet.
Still, the StarLink controversy sheds some light on where the future of agriculture may be headed, suggests Zach Fore, cropping systems specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
The number of grain products possessing specific traits will greatly expand in the coming years. Some of these traits will be products of biotechnology
and others will result from conventional breeding and selection. In almost all cases, grain products possessing specific traits will need to be segregated
from other grains, and will need to meet other criteria for handling and purity, he says.
In the simplest cases, farmers will need to plant, harvest, and store grains separately, then have them tested to meet certain purity standards. In the
most complex cases, every step in the process from seed selection to final delivery will need to be documented and monitored. The product will be
certified, tested, and have a paper trail that allows traceability back to its origin.
The “Starlink Incident” need not be looked upon as a negative issue, Fore says. Rather, it will bring improvements. “It will result in agricultural
products with special attributes to be managed, handled, distributed, and marketed better—to the benefit of all in the food chain, including farmers. It
is critical that farmers view these developments as opportunities, not hassles. Farmers and food companies willing to respond by customizing what they
produce and how they produce it for their customers will benefit,” Fore says.
Kraft Foods Exec Applauds Strategic Biotech Approach
Since wheat is a food grain, over half of which is exported, it may be more sensitive to ramifications of biotechnology than other crops,
according to Jean Spence, vice president of worldwide quality and scientific relations, Kraft Foods. “You export about half your crop, where soybeans is about 36 % and
corn 23 %. So for you it’s more important than other growers to think about this,” she told wheat producers, at the recent Wheat Industry Conference held in New Orleans.
Like many in the food industry, she voices the potential benefits that eventually may come from food enhanced by bioengineering. Products that
sustain energy and give strength, for example, may win consumers. Currently, however, consumers domestically and abroad are unsure of it. She applauded the strategic approach being taken by the NAWG, USW,
and WETEC to place customer needs and preferences as paramount.
Spence also encouraged the grain sector to develop standards for handling grain with special attributes—genetically engineered or otherwise. “In the
U.S., it may not be as important as internationally. If we do develop value-added varieties, however, we will need to keep them separate. If the
international market wants non-GMO, we need a way to assure (that),” she says. “We need to work together to ensure not only that the regulatory system is adequate, but that the public perceives that it is.”
Last September, Kraft Foods voluntarily recalled Taco Bell taco shell products sold nationwide in supermarkets and other retail grocery outlets,
because the corn variety StarLink had not yet been approved for use in food. Kraft is licensed by Taco Bell to use the name on taco shell products sold only in supermarkets.
Spence says the food industry needs to work on ways to prevent the StarLink incident from happening again. She says Kraft, which is among
Philip Morris family of companies, has four specific improvements the company is recommending for enhancing the safe entry of biotechnology into the marketplace, and encourages the appropriate regulatory authorities
to consider the following:
• Discontinuing partial approvals of advances in plant biotechnology, and not allowing crops approved for animal use to enter the market unless they have also been approved for use in food.
• Requiring as a pre-condition to approval that a fully validated testing procedure be in place for identifying the relevant DNA in crops and in finished products.
• Requiring mandatory review of all plant biotechnology advances by the appropriate government agencies before those advances enter the market.
• Strengthening the requirements for environmental stewardship of plant biotechnology to enhance the integrity of the food supply chain from farm to finished product.
A Backgrounder on the StarLink Issue
It was reported last September that tests conducted on 23 grocery store products containing corn revealed that one of those products contained
genetically modified material from a hybrid containing a Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene which produces a protein not approved for direct human
consumption. The Bt protein called Cry9C is produced in corn hybrids sold by Aventis CropScience under the name StarLink. The protein was
originally detected in Taco Bell brand taco shells, and turned up in numerous other brands of taco shells and other corn products.
StarLink corn is approved for livestock consumption, but the genetically modified seed sold in the U.S. was not approved for human consumption.
Although serious health effects are not expected, the Cry9C protein reportedly does not break down quickly in the human digestive system and therefore might trigger allergic reactions.
The tests were conducted through the group ‘Friends of the Earth’ on behalf of the coalition, “Genetically Engineered Food Alert.” The shells contained
about 1% StarLink corn. Upon the initial discovery, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a recall of more than 300 different tortillas,
taco shells, tostadas, and corn chip products encompassing dozens of brands that appear to contain StarLink corn.
StarLink was grown on approximately 350,000 acres in 2000 by about 3,000 growers. This represents about one half of one percent of last year’s
corn crop. Much of the approximately 50 million bushels of StarLink corn produced in 2000 was not segregated to ensure use only for livestock.
Isolating Starlink from the food chain, paying premiums to farmers and grain handlers, and other related expenses are expected to cost Aventis more
than $100 million, and may result in a shakeup of the company itself. Indeed, there is speculation Aventis will exit out of the ag business, selling its ag division to another company.
The issue resulted in many food companies checking their products to determine if any StarLink corn may be present. International customers of
U.S. corn also became concerned, with many requiring that testing be done to ensure no StarLink corn is present in corn they purchase.
(Backgrounder compiled by Zach Fore, University of Minnesota Extension Service)