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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 use.

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 products.

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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