By Cheryl Stubbendieck
Vice President of Public Relations
Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation
Mistakes were made.
There is no getting around the fact that StarLink corn shouldn't have made its way into taco shells for human consumption. The biotechnology corn variety was approved for animal feed use only, although Aventis CropScience, the company that owns the patent, also had applied for food use approval.
Some individuals and organizations have alleged that a protein in StarLink is a possible allergen for certain populations and could cause an allergic reaction, if eaten by susceptible persons. Class action lawsuits are planned against Kraft Foods, manufacturer of the taco shells, although no ill health effects have been proven.
As one solution to the problem, Aventis has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to grant a temporary exemption allowing StarLink to be used for food. Given the publicity and media efforts of anti-biotechnology advocates, it seems doubtful EPA would have the political will to grant the exemption, let alone rule positively on the original request for food use approval.
Clearly, mistakes were made--big ones. But the mishandling of StarLink should not be promoted or accepted as reason to back off from biotechnology crops. It is important to remember that crops are bio-engineered for some good reason. It the case of StarLink, its resistance to corn borer and corn root worm eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, a clear environmental advantage over more conventional corn varieties.
The StarLink case should be seen as an opportunity to refine regulatory and grain handling procedures. It is one thing to imagine ahead of time what problems may occur and another to know what the problems really are.
At least two steps seem clear. The biotechnology industry should adhere to its stated promise that future products destined for food or feed use will not be released for production until they are approved for use in both markets. This action should maintain consumer confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply.
Second, the preferences of foreign customers who may reject biotechnology crops need to be respected. When biotech products have been approved in the U.S., but haven't received required approvals in major export markets, we need some plan, procedure or protocol to assure that grain supplies destined for export aren't commingled with biotech varieties. This is no small problem and it starts at the local level, where few grain elevators have the ability to segregate different varieties.
Biotechnology crops are important to the progress of agriculture and environmental protection. StarLink should be viewed as a bump in the road--not as a dead end.