By Gary Wulf

BridgeNews Service

KANSAS CITY (B)--Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said Oct. 19 Aventis CropScience has extended a deadline for farmers to participate in a joint U.S. Department of Agriculture/Aventis program designed to buy back all 2000-crop StarLink corn. The controversial genetically modified hybrid--which has not yet been approved for human consumption--has been responsible for numerous food recalls. The deadline, originally set for Oct. 20, has now been extended indefinitely.

Under the purchase program, which is being coordinated by the USDA Farm Service Agency, producers can sell StarLink corn for a 25-cent-per-bushel premium and be paid for the expense of storing the corn on their farm and transporting it to approved sites.

A press release issued Oct. 19 by the Iowa Attorney General's office said Miller called "high-ranking" Aventis officials Oct. 18 to recommend that the sign-up deadline be lifted, and the company agreed.

"Farmers have more time, and they do not have to give up any rights to participate in this program, Aventis told us today," Miller said.

Aventis also agreed to Miller's request that farmers who participate in the purchase program not be required to waive any rights to recover additional damages they may have incurred as a result of growing StarLink corn.

Aventis also told Miller it would "work with" elevators and farmers who claim StarLink corn became commingled with other corn and resulted in a discounted price for their grain.

Aventis had previously announced plans to include any corn grown within 660 feet of a StarLink field in the buy-back program.

"This is a serious situation for farmers, elevators, processors and everyone in the grain chain," Miller said. "We are following this situation closely with a goal of protecting producers, elevators and processors and safeguarding our grain and food systems. Aventis says it will continue working with us and others to tackle this situation."

StarLink corn contains a bacterial gene that makes it resistant to corn borer caterpillars, but Aventis's EPA license for StarLink does not permit use for human food because the Agency could not rule out a link between the StarLink protein and food allergies. StarLink grain can be used for animal feed and non-food industrial products.

Miller spoke by phone Oct. 18 with John Wichtrich, Vice President for Commercial Operations for Aventis USA LP, who said Aventis' top priority is to control and segregate StarLink corn.

The company is seeking to keep the corn out of the grain marketing system, except for moving corn to "approved delivery sites" that can accept the corn and keep it completely segregated from other grain.

Aventis has a list of approved delivery sites in the United States, including 51 in Iowa, where more than 40% of all U.S. StarLink production was located this season. Overall, Aventis thinks StarLink may have been grown on more than 322,000 acres in 28 states.

Other corn commingled with StarLink corn and stored on the farm is not included in the SES Program. However, Aventis will pay storage and transportation costs associated with delivering the grain to an approved delivery location.

Aventis will work with grain elevators that received StarLink corn to assure that both StarLink and commingled StarLink corn are directed to appropriate approved delivery points, paying additional transportation, demurrage and testing costs incurred by a grain elevator because of the commingled corn. Aventis said it would "work with" grain elevators to address problems related to discounts in value for StarLink and commingled grain delivered to an approved delivery site.

"There are difficult issues still to be resolved," Miller said, "especially the likely discounted value of commingled grain and grain already in the distribution system. We have a long way to go to sort out all those issues. Mr. Wittrich said his company would continue working with us and those who are affected by StarLink corn problems. I told Mr. Wittrich that it is unfair for farmers and elevators or others to be stuck with the consequences of problems they did not create."

Aventis also said it would provide test kits or testing at no charge to producers, elevators or others. Aventis says the testing can determine if grain is StarLink corn or commingled with StarLink corn.

Shortly after the first detection of taco shells contaminated with StarLink corn flour was found on Sept. 29, Aventis said it had reached agreement with three federal agencies to work together in buying up all of this year's production. The USDA, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration are involved in the matter.

Recently, Aventis withdrew its registration of StarLink with the EPA.

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