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GM corn flounders, other GM products work way into U.S. food supply

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Genetically Modified (GM) corn may have come in like a lion, but it appears to be exiting like a lamb.
The StarLink debacle, which became an international incident, began when StarLink corn not approved for human consumption found its way into taco shells exported to Japan. U.S. farmers planted 340,908 acres of StarLink corn in 2000, but none of the seed is available for the current crop year.

That is, StarLink seed is not being sold this year, but concerns about cross-contamination linger. The National Corn Growers Association recently issued a warning to its members that stray kernels from last year’s crop of StarLink corn could sprout in fields and cross-pollinate with other varieties of corn if farmers are not careful. Farmers are being advised to plant crops other than corn in and around the fields that were planted the previous year with StarLink corn.

“Unfortunately, farmers are paying the price for StarLink manufacturer Aventis’ mistake,” said RMFU president Dave Carter. “This incident should serve as a wake-up call to those who favor rushing ahead with GM technology before safeguards are properly established.”

In addition to having to worry about cross-pollination after planting, corn producers also are being warned to have their new seeds tested before they are planted. There is concern that other varieties may be contaminated with last year’s StarLink seeds.

Experts at Purdue University are recommending that farmers get written verification from their seed dealers that the conventional varieties they plant are free of Cry9C protein (the protein that distinguishes StarLink); that they have samples of the seed tested prior to planting it; and that they save the samples in case they must “reverify” that the corn they planted was Cry9C-free. They also recommend checking with owners of neighboring fields about the type of seed they are planting and recording planting dates of all fields in the vicinity.

Farmers planting other types of GM corn are being advised to plant any non-GM seeds before the GM seeds to avoid cross-pollination.

Bob Nielsen, Purdue Cooperative Extension Service corn specialist, also warns against planting a corn hybrid tolerant to glyphosate herbicides. The problem is that these types of hybrids have been approved only in the United States and Japan.

“Even though some grain buyers are assuring farmers that they will purchase grain from these hybrids, farmers bear the sole risk for rejection at the first point of sale should buying policies change any time in the future,” Nielsen said.

Despite the quick death of StarLink and the uncertainties facing other GM corn seeds, GM foods are now ingredients in about 60 percent of the food at supermarkets. These foods come from 46 varieties of GM crops, such as soybeans, potatoes, sugar beets, corn and squash.

U.S. consumers continue to be wary of GM products. Consumers with allergies fear GM foods could be life-threatening if, for example, a gene from a food to which a person is highly allergic were spliced into the genes used to produce a food to which they are not allergic. Surveys repeatedly show that a majority of consumers favor labeling of foods made with GM ingredients.

In April, the state of Virginia passed into law a measure prohibiting the raising of GM fish unless they are in ponds or lakes that do not connect to other state waterways. Closer to home, Boulder County is considering banning the cultivation of any GM crop, grass or other plant on county property.

In order that farmers do not have to deal with the logistical nightmare outlined in the first part of this story, the North Dakota Legislature earlier this year considered adoption of a bill that would have banned the planting of GM wheat throughout the state for two years. Ultimately, the bill failed. Support of the bill by the state’s farmers, however, enabled it to make significant headway.

RMFU’s position, as ratified by 2000 convention delegates, is that GM technology be thoroughly researched and that unintended negative ramifications (i.e., cross pollination with neighboring fields; threats to those with extreme allergy conditions) be ruled out before the technology is approved for use. RMFU also objects to farmers having to bear the financial burden for seed companies’ mistakes.