GENEVA (B)--U.S. corn growers June 13 conceded that they must persuade European consumers that there are health and environmental benefits from sowing genetically modified (GM) crops if they are to open up new export markets.

"We've not done a good job of demonstrating the consumer benefits," said Lee Klein, president of the National Corn Growers Association, during an industry visit to Europe.

By stressing environmental benefits such as reduced pesticide and herbicide run-off into ground water and lower chemical spray residues, the NCGA hopes to counter the negative image that GM crops have in the European Union.

The Association says it is concerned about its corn gluten exports to the EU, worth $300 million annually.

In addition, the growers point to the loss of a 2 million-ton corn export market in Spain and Portugal following their membership in the EU, as exporters could not guarantee that shipments were GM-free.

Clearly, explaining the agronomic benefits to consumers and the scientific reasoning has not been enough, say the growers.

"There's good information and data that hasn't come out, we haven't done a good job," added Rick Tolman, NCGA vice president.

The need to "promote the integrity of the product" was recently underlined when food grain destined for human consumption was contaminated with StarLink, a GM corn made by Aventis CropScience, said Tolman. StarLink is only approved for animal feed use in the U.S.

The incident brought on a recall of more than 300 grocery and restaurant products and led Japan, South Korea and other countries to reject grain shipments. The countries' refusals led to depressed corn prices.

Aventis said that 400 million bushels of corn were contaminated. The U.S. government investigated around a dozen complaints of people falling sick after eating corn products containing the StarLink protein.

However, while the NCGA says it is determined to start "listening to the what the market wants us to grow," it insists that some of the EU's plans for labelling and tracing GM crops are unworkable.

Tolman said that although he is encouraged by some of the latest changes to proposed European legislation for labelling and tracing GM products, "there are still significant problems."

In particular, Tolman pointed to the proposal to impose threshold tolerances for GM food labeling. A level less than 1% for non-deliberate (or "advantitious") contamination would be impractical, he said.

The NCGA opposes all mandatory labeling, as under the European Commission's proposals most U.S. crop products would have to carry a GM warning. The Commission has mooted a possible 2% compromise. Japan has imposed a 5% threshold, by weight.

Once a product has been given regulatory approval in the U.S., it is deemed "substantially equivalent" to non-GM crops.

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