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2-Plants: Starlink contaminated other corn varieties already in 1998



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TITLE:  A) USDA doesn't know how StarLink tainted 1998 corn
        B) Corn leaving bad taste in world markets as GMO worries build
SOURCE: both Reuters, A) by Julie Vornam, B) by Steve James
DATE:   both November 23, 2000

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USDA doesn't know how StarLink tainted 1998 corn

WASHINGTON - The discovery that StarLink bio-corn contaminated another 
variety of corn in 1998 may be due to either drifting pollen in the field 
or careless handling of the seed, the US Agriculture Department said on 
Tuesday. The worrisome new incident prompted the USDA to call a special 
meeting on Monday with department scientists, economists, policymakers as 
well as representatives of the US food and grain industries. StarLink, made 
by Aventis SA, is at the center of an unprecedented flap over US bio-
engineered crops. Since StarLink was discovered in taco shells in late 
September, more than 300 kinds of chips and flour have been recalled, food 
processors' production lines have been disrupted, and Japan and other key 
buyers of US corn have put purchases on hold.

StarLink, which went on the market in 1998, is allowed in livestock feed 
but US regulators barred it from human food because of unanswered questions 
about allergic reactions. Aventis announced on Tuesday that it found some 
of the same Cry9C protein - the key component of StarLink corn - in another 
variety of 1998 corn seed produced by Garst Seed Co. of Iowa. Aventis said 
it did not know how the contamination occurred two years ago. Under Aventis 
licensing agreements, Garst and other corn seed producers must meet quality 
standards and use the Cry9C technology only in varieties sold as StarLink.


DRIFTING POLLEN OR MISHANDLING?

Government officials said they had little information. "At this point, we 
don't yet know exactly what happened and how," said USDA spokesman Andy 
Solomon. "The question here is, was it gene flow or mishandling during 
production and distribution by this one company that caused this?" he 
added. Gene flow, which can occur as pollen from corn plants is blown into 
other fields, has long been a worry of environmentalists and organic 
farmers.

Anti-biotech groups have urged the federal government to tighten 
restrictions on gene-spliced crops, and at the very least require much 
bigger buffer zones to protect other plant species. Currently, the 
Environmental Protection Agency requires a 660-foot buffer around fields of 
StarLink corn.

Another possible cause of the contamination could be careless handling of 
the corn seed at some point in its production, bagging or marketing. Hybrid 
seed corn must be meticulously segregated and handled to preserve its 
identity. Garst, based in Slater, Iowa, said in a statement that the Cry9C 
protein was found in "limited quantities" of a single, corn hybrid produced 
by the company in 1998. The company said it discovered the StarLink protein 
through on-going seed testing procedures. Garst said its tests showed no 
sign of the Cry9C protein in 1999 or 2000 crops of the same corn variety.


USDA UNSURE OF ADDITIONAL STEPS

The USDA said it planned no immediate action, but would meet with industry 
officials on Monday to analyze the incident. The meeting will help 
determine "what additional steps, if any" the government or industry needs 
to take, Solomon said. After StarLink was discovered in taco shells, the 
government prodded Aventis into launching a $100 million buy-back program 
to collect as much of the current harvest as possible. Although StarLink 
was grown on less than 1 percent of all US corn fields, it was commingled 
with much larger quantities of corn. The Cry9C protein was engineered into 
StarLink to protect the young corn plant from destructive pests.

The discovery of the protein in another kind of corn seed was seized on by 
anti-biotech activists as evidence that Aventis and other makers cannot 
keep control of new gene-spliced varieties. "It shows the potential for 
human exposure to this is not just from the StarLink corn that has yet to 
be accounted for in this year's harvest," said Charles Margulis, a biotech 
expert with Greenpeace. "Clearly, Aventis doesn't have any idea how much is 
really out there, and how much consumers may be exposed to this"

Greenpeace is one of two dozen members of a coalition of environmental and 
consumer groups that wants the government to temporarily halt approvals of 
new bio-crops or initiate strict tests for human and environmental safety. 
Aventis has presented the government with new scientific data that it says 
proves StarLink is no threat to human health. The Environmental Protection 
Agency will hold a meeting next week to analyze the data and help determine 
if StarLink should be given temporary approval as human food.

                             *****


B) Corn leaving bad taste in world markets as GMO worries build

NEW YORK - Corn, as American as apple pie, is leaving a bad taste in many 
countries and opening up a new front in the war over so-called Frankenstein 
food. The discovery in September that many brands of taco shells and chips 
contained StarLink, a biotech variety of corn, or maize, that had not been 
approved for human consumption, is hurting US corn exports to big buyers 
like Japan and South Korea. The announcement Tuesday that StarLink's 
genetically modified protein had turned up in another variety of corn has 
heightened concern that bioengineered corn is spreading. While Midwest 
farmers may rejoice that corn chips and tortillas are becoming the snack of 
choice in many countries, they are also concerned that corn is at the heart 
of an uproar in Europe and Asia over genetically modified food.

"It's an issue that has caused concern among some of our importers," US 
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said last week. But he declined to say 
if Washington will have to trim corn exports this year due to the StarLink 
controversy. On Tuesday, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the 
Japanese Health Ministry finalized an agreement for testing American corn 
shipped to Japan as food, to ensure it does not contain the StarLink strain 
of grain. But traders in Tokyo said yesterday the discovery that StarLink's 
Cry9C protein had spread to another variety of corn only deepened doubts 
that US corn can be kept free of genetic modification.

Indian corn is a hybrid of several local grasses and has been cultivated in 
the Americas for thousands of years. The problem, according to agronomists 
and agri-industry analysts, is that while corn was traditionally viewed 
mostly as livestock feed, the issue of genetic modification was moot. But 
the recent rise in popularity of corn chips and tortillas has elevated the 
problem into a human health issue. The biological makeup of corn also 
carries a higher risk of accidental cross-pollination and lack of storage 
control makes it easier for GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, to 
find their way into the human food chain, the experts say.


CORN'S POTENTIAL FOR CROSS-POLLINATION

StarLink was approved by US regulators in 1998 only for livestock feed 
after scientists were unable to determine if the gene-spliced corn might 
cause humans to develop rashes, diarrhea, respiratory problems, or other 
allergic reactions. But the corn, made by Franco-German Aventis SA , 
accidentally got into other yellow corn this year and triggered a recall of 
300 brands of taco shells, chips, cornmeal and other US foods. StarLink was 
engineered to contain a gene that protects young corn plants from 
destructive pests. Indian corn is a food staple in many areas. American 
Indians ate sweet corn, popcorn and corn meal in many forms and grits is a 
favorite across the southern United States. Because corn has distinct 
strains, such as white, yellow, blue and red corn, the plant has also 
become a favorite for genetic experimentation.

"One of the problems corn has that maybe other crops don't is the huge 
potential for cross-pollination," said Dale Farnham, an Iowa State 
University agronomist. Pollen, he said, is produced in the flowers at the 
top, or tassel, of the corn plant, some way from the cob, and can be blown 
in the wind. "No one knows how far the corn pollen can travel, some studies 
have said a quarter of a mile, so one hybrid of an unapproved event (gene) 
can transfer to corn in another field that has non-GMOs and produce 
kernels."

Another problem, Farnham said, is the present storage and delivery systems. 
"One type of corn looks like another so they can become blended 
accidentally (in grain elevators). There are no safeguards. We're dealing 
with 21st century technology and storage systems that are two or three 
decades out of date."


HERD MENTALITY HELPS SPREAD GM-CORN

Agronomist Ellsworth Christmas at Indiana's Purdue University agreed on the 
cross-pollination. "It doesn't take much to contaminate a large quantity of 
corn. When it is made into cornmeal it can get into products like 
tortillas." Donald White, a University of Illinois plant pathologist, 
believes competitiveness in the industry is behind the drive for more 
genetic strains that are resistant to disease or pests, or which may help a 
plant adapt to local climates. "Unlike wheat or soybeans, with corn, the 
farmer goes back each year for seed. It's highly competitive and everyone 
is looking for a competitive edge. "Also what happens is there is a herd 
mentality. Everyone has to have a biotech program," he said.

Shawn McCambridge, a Prudential Securities analyst in Chicago, said the 
problem did not occur with wheat possibly because wheat is used so commonly 
in human food. "Possibly the wheat companies are backing away from genetic 
modification." "With corn, you go one step further. It changes the genetic 
makeup of corn when you create a plant that makes its own pesticide. That's 
probably why you haven't had the Frankenstein food uproar over wheat."

Analyst Dale Gustafson of Salomon Smith Barney, noted that actually the 
percentage of crop modification in corn is significantly less than in 
soybeans. But GM in soybeans has been accepted as modifying feed and not 
food. "We have not yet seen GM wheat. If we did, we would be seeing the 
same problems in those consumer products."



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