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GM corn means headaches for port

Concern over genetically modified (GM) corn could have a long-range impact on the Duluth-Superior port. A license to grow genetically altered corn in the United States was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 on the condition t...

Concern over genetically modified (GM) corn could have a long-range impact on the Duluth-Superior port. A license to grow genetically altered corn in the United States was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 on the condition that the altered corn be used only for animal feed and not human consumption. "We couldn't determine whether it may cause allergic reactions," Dave Deegan, public affairs specialist for the EPA said. "Based on that uncertainty, we told the company we would not register it for human food use."
It's the first time such a "split registration" has been granted by the EPA, and unbeknownst to them the conditions placed on the agreement were unlikely to succeed.
The EPA says it was part of the registration agreement that Aventis, the company that developed the seed for the altered corn, was responsible for keeping the altered corn separated. "Bags of StarLink were to be clearly labeled," Deegan said. "We also required that the company would have signed grower agreements with each individual they sold the seed to, so that all the farmers would understand what the end use could be."
But the grain handling system in this country isn't set up to handle a subtle distinction in corn varieties. "We've been working since our infrastructure started being assembled in the 1800s to transport huge amounts very efficiently," Paul Strandberg, project manager with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said. "The whole assumption is that corn is corn and beans are beans. Now we have a differentiation in the market. While our system is incredibly efficient, it isn't quite as nimble as it needs to be to differentiate among these products."
DNA tests conducted in September detected the StarLink corn in processed food marketed for humans, proving that the two grains have not been kept separate. Available information indicates that some portion of the 1999 StarLink crop entered the human food supply, but how much is uncertain.
With an unknown quantity of StarLink corn mixed in with corn being shipped through the Duluth port, some overseas customers are now reluctant to accept the shipments of their order. "What happened is there's an awful lot of people with already delivered corn co-mingled in huge quantities in the grain system, or they've got a contract and all of a sudden they don't want to take it because they're going to use it for food or export it," Strandberg said. "We've been scrambling trying to figure out how to direct this to its appropriate use and satisfy our domestic food and foreign customers this year."
The mixing of StarLink corn in with corn for human consumption may have a long lasting impact on the Duluth-Superior port. The mix-up has some buyers looking to other countries that don't grow genetically altered corn. "It really gave this whole process a black eye," Ron Johnson with the Duluth port said. "The EPA should not have granted the approval without some very, very strict guidelines and assurances. It should have probably been delayed until the identified preserved process was more fully developed."
Such a process would ensure that various kinds of grain are not mixed, but it would be an expensive process that would also likely raise the price. "There's a whole movement afoot to grow specific types of grains that have nutricuetical applications," Johnson said. "When you start having all these different kinds of corn you have to have different ways of handling it. You have to ensure that it doesn't get contaminated. Our grain handling system is not designed that way. You have to be able to clean the system if you're handling a variety of different grains. You have to containerize in smaller shipments. It's expensive, and we don't have containerized service out of here. When the time comes, when it costs more, will they be willing to pay?"
For now the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control are working on a coordinated response to the presence of StarLink corn in the human food supply. "On the immediate level, we are working to identify every last grain of StarLink corn and try to make sure it stays out of the food chain," Deegan said. "And in retrospect, based on this experience, there certainly will be an extremely high hurdle if any company comes in saying they want this kind of registration."
Due to concerns that StarLink corn from the 2000 growing season might also directly enter the food supply, the U. S. Department of Agriculture has taken steps to bring all available StarLink corn under its control. USDA has successfully located and imposed controls on 88 percent of the 2000 StarLink crop.
Jennifer Simonson is a reporter for the Budgeteer News. Contact her at jsimonson@duluth.com or at 723-1207.

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