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Corn Industry Disrupted by StarLink Controversy

NY Times
December 11, 2000

Gene-Altered Corn Changes Dynamics of Grain Industry
By David Barboza

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa : At the Archer Daniels Midland Company's plant these
days, the arriving truckloads of No. 2 yellow corn all need to pass the same
test: they are checked for odor, damage, moisture, and something called
Cry9C.

A seven-member crew divides, sifts, weighs, grinds and even sniffs the corn
samples-- a practice that grew more complicated a few weeks ago, after Kraft
Foods recalled millions of taco shells possibly containing StarLink, a
genetically engineered variety of corn that produces the Cry9C protein. The
corn is not supposed to be in the human food supply because of concerns it
might trigger allergic reactions.

Now, after a series of recalls, nearly every major food and agriculture
company is frantically testing for Cry9C. The result has been a costly
disruption to the nation's grain-handling system. Scores of trucks, rail
cars and river barges are being turned away daily by inspectors who say that
a splotch of red dye has turned up on what looks like a home pregnancy test,
meaning their corn is not fit for food.

"It's a logistical nightmare," said Steven Phillips, the grain merchandiser
at East Central Iowa Co-op in Hudson, a supplier to the plant here. "We had
15 truckloads of corn rejected last week."

The costs for the corn's developer, Aventis CropScience, are huge. It has
promised to find markets for this year's StarLink crop and to compensate
farmers, elevator operators like Mr. Phillips and processors for some of
their expenses. Aventis received less than a million dollars in licensing
fees over the last three years on StarLink, but the controversy could cost
the company several hundred million dollars to resolve.

The StarLink episode has also raised the decibel level in an already
high-pitched debate over the agricultural use of biotechnology. Though most
farmers seem to favor biotech crops, saying they deliver higher yields or
cut down on chemical spraying, many here in Iowa say they are growing wary.

Grain processors are warning farmers about next year's harvest, with Archer
Daniels running radio commercials emphasizing that its plants will not
accept genetically altered crops that do not have worldwide approval. And
some farmers are questioning whether to plant even varieties that have been
approved for human consumption

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Chris Huegerich, a farmer in
Breda, Iowa, who grows Roundup Ready soybeans, a bioengineered variety that
can be exported worldwide. "I want to do Roundup Ready beans but I'm worried
something might happen. You just don't know."

Planting of StarLink, in any case, is moot; Aventis has already withdrawn
its license for further sale. And no actual health hazards have been
established from StarLink or any other bioengineered crops on the market.
But some agricultural experts say they are worried that the StarLink case is
simply a harbinger of more troubles to come.

Among other things, they say, the Cry9C mess shows how complicated the
logistics of biotechnology can be for a grain-handling system that typically
ships undifferentiated crops in bulk.

"We're not cut out to segregate," says Gary Alberts, a spokesman for the
Iowa Institute of Cooperatives, a trade association for elevators. "We
handle a lot of grain in a hurry. We're built to load a rail car in a day."

Yet now that farmers can choose between traditional and biotech seeds, new
sorting, segregating and distribution needs are arising that may radically
alter the dynamics of a grain-handling system built on economies of scale.

In the United States, a few big food makers have said they will seek
conventional crops because of consumer concerns, but for the most part they
have contracted directly with farmers to grow, say, nonbiotech corn for
Frito-Lay chips. So there has been relatively little need for testing or
segregation in the general grain supply.

But with increasing skepticism among consumers in Europe and Japan about
bioengineered food, and in some cases new requirements for labeling, the
need to separate bioengineered and conventional crops has grown. And so
there may be more scenes like the roadblocks set up to stop any StarLink
corn from getting into processing plants.

On a chilly morning in Cedar Rapids, a steady stream of semis was pulling up
under a canopy at the inspection site to have their loads tested before
entering the Archer Daniels corn processing plant, where raw corn is turned
into high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and other products.

Inspections have always taken place at processing plants, to check the
quality, moisture and weight of crops, but these days two additional men are
sitting by a coffee grinder, grounding up corn samples, shaking them up in
water, dipping tiny strips into the solution and then waiting 10 minutes for
the results.

By 9:45 a.m., the inspectors had rejected 9 trucks out of 213, each filled
with about 950 bushels of corn. The number of trucks turned away is
striking, since less than 0.5 percent of this year's corn acreage nationwide
was planted with StarLink seed. The elevators that shipped the corn are then
stuck with it until they can find an alternative buyer for another use.

The inspections have clearly slowed the process of shipping corn to market,
and some farmers and truckers complain that the tests being used, intended
to detect Cry9C in one kernel of corn out of 400, are flawed.

"It's all in the probing," said one trucker, who asked not to be identified..
"You have 10 samples that test positive and then one that doesn't. It's all
the luck of the samples."

Farmers and truckers say their loads could be rejected over the presence of
just one StarLink kernel in a batch of grain sampled from the 950 bushels.
And while the truckers, and farmers, have been promised compensation, they
say the difficulty of finding new buyers, and possibly losing out in some
markets, has been troubling.

To ease the situation, Aventis has asked the Environmental Protection Agency
to approve StarLink for human consumption for four years, to allow the
StarLink corn already harvested to work its way through the food chain. In
the meantime, several processors are asking the E.P.A. and food companies to
make a tiny percentage of Cry9C acceptable in food, as they do with many
other impurities.

"When the handler makes the decision, they have to have realistic
expectations," said an Agriculture Department official. "When they have zero
tolerance, it's impractical."

Farmers may be the hardest hit by all the testing. Even some who knew
nothing about StarLink say it has turned up in their harvest.

"I didn't grow any StarLink corn, but I got contaminated by a neighbor,"
said Keith Weller, 50, who farms near Westside, Iowa. "This issue of
contamination is a real problem."

Some farmers who planted StarLink say they were not told about 660-foot
buffer zones mandated by the E.P.A. between StarLink corn and corn grown for
food, and they say pollen may have drifted even longer distances, leading to
cross- pollination with a neighbor's crop.

Randy Kohorst, a 43-year-old corn and soybean farmer in Arcadia, Iowa, says
he planted 200 acres of StarLink. But he says he was told nothing by the
Garst Seed Company of Slater, Iowa, which sold him the seed, about buffer
zones or marketing restrictions.

"We had it harvested before we heard it was a problem," he said. "And it was
commingled, so now all my production is contaminated."

Now he is stuck with a StarLink crop and complaining about lost marketing
opportunities.

A spokesman at Garst said that the company was informing farmers about the
requirements placed on use of StarLink corn. "It's unfortunate some
customers say they weren't informed about the program," said Jeff Lacina,
the spokesman. "But we worked hard to get that message out."

And corn prices ã already in a slump ã may decline further this year because
exports to Japan, the largest purchaser of American corn, are down because
of concerns about StarLink, which has also been found in food there.

Mr. Kohorst and other farmers say the problem may be costing them more than
the 25-cent premium Aventis is offering for the StarLink crop.

Elevator operators, who buy crops from farmers and then ship them to giant
processors or feed lots, are also facing inconvenience, despite receiving
extra transportation expenses from Aventis.

For Aventis, containing the spread of StarLink is not easy. The company says
it has accounted for 90 percent of the 350,000 acres planted in 2000, but it
admits that the 1998 and 1999 harvests are either buried on farms and
elevators (in an undocumented fashion) or have already reached the market
and entered the food stream.

To help deal with the problem, the company has supplied Cry9C test kits to
grain elevators and processors around the country. It also says it will help
farmers who did not plant StarLink but whose crops were contaminated by
cross-pollination to find a market for their corn, and will consider
additional compensation in some cases.

The bigger cost, though, could be borne by the biotech industry, which has
spent billions of dollars over the last decade to develop genetically
altered crops that mean higher yields for farmers and may some day deliver
medicines and vaccines as well.

That effort, of course, could be upset if farmers decide not to plant
biotech crops like Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, which are bioengineered
to resist a common Monsanto herbicide called Roundup. Though the soybeans
can be sold everywhere, the corn is unapproved in Europe.

"StarLink has definitely set back the biotech industry, maybe five years,"
said Lewis W. Batchelder, a senior vice president at Archer Daniels, which
is based in Decatur, Ill.

Regardless of what farmers decide to plant, Jim Magnuson, general manager at
the Sully Cooperative Exchange, an elevator in Sully, Iowa, says farmers
need to pay more attention next year.

"For a producer, the lesson is to know exactly what you're planting," he
said. "We as an industry have operated on the handshake. But what we know
now is that in a big, bad world, those assurances no longer apply."

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