Associated Press Writer
November 20, 2000
Illinois farmers are getting early advice about what corn to plant and what to avoid next spring in hopes of preventing a repeat of this year's harvest controversy over a genetically modified corn that slipped into the human food supply.
Mishandling of the genetically modified StarLink corn variety, which is approved only for animal feed, resulted in large recalls of taco shells and some other foods earlier this fall. Fears about the U.S. grain supply have been blamed for recent drops in corn exports, and major grain handlers and government agencies are still working to segregate StarLink from corn headed to processing plants.
In a letter sent this week, Decatur-based grain processor A.E. Staley Manufacturing advises farmers to use caution if planting genetically modified hybrids, making sure they only plant those varieties approved for human use by the European Union, which constitutes a major market.
"Just as StarLink corn has changed our corn purchasing operation this year to, among other things, require testing, nothing can be assumed or taken for granted as seed choices are made for spring planting," the letter says. "The only truly safe seed selection will be seed corn free of any genetic modification."
Archer Daniels Midland Co., a major grain shipper and processor also based in Decatur, did not go quite as far. In a policy statement, the company said it supports biotechnology developments in agriculture but must produce products that will be accepted in overseas markets, which ban some biotech products.
ADM officials say all their elevators that supply processing plants will accept non-modified corn and modified strains approved for human use worldwide. Certain other varieties will be accepted only at designated elevators; no StarLink will be accepted.
Advice is also coming from the Illinois Corn Growers Association, which plans to begin distributing a 16-page booklet next week listing what types of corn will be accepted for different uses.
Doug Wilson, who farms near Gridley, said he's glad processors are communicating with growers this early as they begin deciding what to plant. In the past, he said, advisories about preferred varieties often weren't issued until producers had already bought seed corn and begun planting.
"They're giving us a much better picture of what they will and won't do. Now it will be a matter of how well we heed what they say," he said. "Everyone's got to protect themselves. If nothing else, StarLink has brought it to the forefront that there's huge liability issues."
The discovery that StarLink corn had commingled with approved corn caused farmers and grain elevator operators to worry that the controversial variety could ruin the harvest even for those who had tried to avoid the grain. But Doug Durdan, who runs Durdan Grain Elevator near Streator, said assurances from StarLink manufacturer Aventis CropScience that farmers and merchants will be reimbursed for any losses have calmed those fears.
"It's been pretty minor," he said.
So far, the company has agreed to pay farmers 25 cents per bushel over normal local prices for StarLink and "buffer corn" - crops grown near the genetically modified corn - but not commingled corn.
State attorneys general from 16 states, including Illinois, are pushing the company to cover the cost of corn that was commingled and now tests positive for StarLink. They also want the company to speed up payments.
Just how much StarLink remains to be segregated from Illinois stocks is a mystery. Mark Lambert, spokesman for the state Corn Growers Association, said there's no doubt that through commingling and cross-pollination in fields, there is more StarLink than was produced on the 17,000 acres planted in the state.
Scherrie Giamanco, chief price support program specialist for the Farm Service Agency in Illinois, said that agency is directing anyone who thinks they have StarLink to contact Aventis for information on where to deliver it and apply for payment.
"It's a finite amount and for the most part it's going to be tracked and contained," she said.
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Last Updated on 11/21/00