By Gary Wulf
KANSAS CITY (B)--Attorneys with the St. Paul, MN-based Farmers' Legal Action Group are advising producers who planted the controversial StarLink corn hybrid to seek legal advice before signing a retroactive growers agreement being circulated by its inventor--Aventis CropScience--and the firm's seed distributors. Farmers who sign the agreement could take on hidden legal liability resulting from the subsequent usage of StarLink as food, rather than for its intended purpose as livestock feed.
"Signing the growers agreement may imply that the farmer is responsible if the grain eventually goes to a food use after it is sold by the farmer," said Steven Carpenter, staff attorney at Farmers' Legal Action Group Inc.
Seed companies sold StarLink seed necessary to plant more than 320,000 acres of land to more than 2,000 farmers in 29 states this season. Many producers claim they were never uniformly informed that the grain was to be segregated from conventional corn so as not to commingle with supplies used for human food products.
Aventis is currently involved in an effort to buy back all 2000 StarLink production from farmers at a 25-cent-per-bushel premium over local market prices, to ensure that all supplies are directed into proper channels.
But, in addition to the buyback agreement, Aventis and its seed distributors are reportedly seeking signatures on retroactive grower agreements from farmers. Such grower agreements spell out the conditions under which genetically modified corn should be grown, harvested and sold, and is normally signed at the beginning of the planting season.
"Farmers should only sign agreements they fully understand, and this includes the StarLink Bt Grower Agreement that is now being distributed by Garst Seed, one of the StarLink seed distributors," Carpenter said. "Further, because of the special legal and economic circumstances faced by StarLink growers in 2000, it makes sense to have an attorney review this agreement."
Carpenter said farmers from across the United States have stated Aventis never told them StarLink corn was not suitable for human consumption, that it had to be segregated from other crops or that they were required to implement a 660-foot buffer zone around fields planted with StarLink.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to approve the corn due to its limited potential for provoking allergic reactions in some people.
Kraft Foods, Mission Foods and Western Family have all recalled taco shells after their products tested positive for traces of StarLink corn. Azteca Milling announced it was recalling all its flour made from yellow corn and Tyson Foods Inc.--the world's largest poultry producer--announced earlier this week it had stopped buying StarLink corn, becoming the first food company to stop using the corn as animal feed.
ConAgra Foods and the Kellogg Co. also have been forced to temporarily halt production at some of their corn mills in order to test for StarLink, which has now been found in some Japanese corn meal as well.
"Instead of farmers being asked to retroactively sign the StarLink Bt Grower Agreement, Aventis should be held liable for contamination of conventional corn fields," said Missouri farmer Bill Christison, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "They readily admit corn grown within an eighth of a mile of StarLink cannot be directed for food use or into export channels."
Of all StarLink corn gown in the United States this season, only 1.2 million bushels remains unaccounted for. But the spread of that grain could contaminate millions of additional bushels in storage, making that corn unfit for food. Aventis estimates that it may take fully four years to clear all StarLink corn from the U.S. marketplace.
One officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Oct. 26 up to 176 million bushels of 2000-crop corn could eventually be affected, totaling less than 2% of all U.S. production.
Market discounts for such commingled grain are said to be averaging about 10 to 20 cents.