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Starlink: The sequel

How short is our memory? Are we getting ready to repeat a mistake in agriculture? It has been 10 years since a biotech corn hybrid called Starlink was put on the market as an industrial/feed product. The corn carried an altered protein that was not cleared for human consumption so it was marketed for industrial and feed use only. Now the biotechnology industry is asking to market a designer corn carrying a special enzyme that turns cornstarch into sugar. That sounds good, especially for ethanol production, but will it cause chaos in corn marketing?

The fact that we can do something is not enough reason to do so without consideration of the consequences. The biotech industry has made great strides in bringing forth new technology that reduces the need for insecticides, make crops herbicide resistant to allow greater flexibility of planting and improving the quality of the end product. Truly miracles of science are in every kernel we drop into the ground. However, the desire is there to engineer crops that have industrial value but are not approved for human consumption.

Starlink, a Bt corn produced by Aventis, became the test case for launching a new type of registration that assured the government it wouldn't get into the human food system. In a Dec. 11, 2000 New York Times article from the year 2000, this is the explanation:

"Cry9C is a pesticidal protein in the Starlink variety of yellow corn that makes the corn more resistant to certain types of insects. EPA authorized Starlink corn only for use in animal feed. EPA did not authorize the use of Starlink corn in human food because of unresolved questions about the allergenic potential of the Cry9C protein. Although restricted to animal food use, some Starlink corn was commingled with yellow corn intended for human use. In addition, in certain limited cases, the Cry9C protein was also detected in corn seeds of a non-Starlink variety of corn or in corn from such seeds.

The real world story of Starlink is fascinating as it was sold across the Midwest as an excellent insect resistant corn. The problem was accountability, as growers dismissed the warning that it could only be sold for animal feed. The feedlot buyers realized they could pay less for the grain so the value of a load was lower than if it went into normal channels of trade bound for feed, food and export. Farmers realized that the testing system at their local elevator was hit or miss so they ran it through and, if caught, they hauled it to a feedlot. A snooper from the anti-biotech lobby was able to find the "Cry9C protein" in taco shells and the rest is history. Starlink is held up as the example of a bad regulatory decision and a worse marketing plan.

Now the USDA is being asked to approve a type of corn that is more conducive to producing ethanol but the food companies fear it will appear in corn flakes or sweetener.

Although I've never liked their attitude toward biotechnology, they are right. Unless it has a substantial price premium attached and licensed like a pharmaceutical, some of it will be sold into the general marketplace.

The real problem with these new products is public perception. What would happen should the gene make it into the human food supply? We would experience even more negative publicity about biotechnology--a powerful and valuable tool that farmers have come to rely upon.

I am sure it is maddening for biotechnology developers to get every new "event" to be recognized by governments worldwide. Accountability to stockholders surely presents problems when millions of dollars or research and development are held back by a single political decision. I only ask that you remember Aventis no longer exists, due largely to the Starlink debacle.

Instead, before another public relations crisis happens, let's work together as an industry--biotechnology companies, producers and the supply chain--to ensure we have a system that keeps up with the rapid advancements in biotechnology.

The request for this registration comes at an interesting time as the new Obama administration is just beginning to set its course. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was a strong proponent of biotechnology in his years as Iowa governor so his support for a new type of biotech corn that makes ethanol production more economical seems logical. Will he look at the bigger picture and heed the lessons of Starlink? Time will tell.

Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.

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