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Second Round of Concern Over Starlink Corn
By Erin Galbally
Minnesota Public Radio
April 25, 2001
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As soon as the Mississippi River reopens to barge travel, rafts of corn kernels will head down river en route to their final destination - southeast Asia. Along the way, kernels will be tested and retested for traces of Starlink, a genetically-modified corn now banned around the world. Last fall Starlink turned up in taco shells and corn chips, prompting mass recalls and a shake-up on the export market. The corn's manufacturer continues to push for full governmental approval which would allow for human consumption. But with the spring thaw, Midwestern grain elevators and their customers are preparing for round two.

Larry Laber, manager of Cenex Harvest States Barge Center in Winona, aboard a barge on the Mississippi River. He says his company must conduct extensive testing of corn to determine it is free of Starlink corn, before its overseas customers will purchase it.
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
EVERY YEAR, TONS OF GRAIN FROM MINNESOTA, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Iowa is hauled to the Cenex Harvest States port on the banks of the Mississippi River. But this year, many of the regulations and procedures have changed dramatically. Just ask Larry Laber, who manages this barge facility in Winona.

"Once we're through loading the barges we do a test for Starlink. If it goes to our export facility in Myrtle Grove, Louisiana - when it's unloaded it's tested again. Then when its loaded onto the ship it's tested again. It gets to be extensive," says Laber.

Starlink, a genetically modified corn never approved for human consumption, complicated last year's harvest by contaminating grain elevators and food processing plants. In 1998, the federal government approved the corn for animal feed and industrial uses, withholding full approval because there were concerns the corn had the potential to trigger allergic attacks in humans. A lapse in the chain of communication lead to the discovery of Starlink in taco shells and corn products across the country by fall of 2000. International outcry ensued and the export market suffered. Barge manager Larry Laber says last year, Starlink cost the U.S. business - bringing corn sales overseas to a halt.

"They're still cautious when they buy grain. They've gone to other countries looking for grain - places that still grow conventional hybrids. But then they run into quality problems. They have come back to us as long as we give them assurances that we continue to do these tests," Laber says.

But those assurances are hard to guarantee, since most of the grain pouring into Lander's Mississippi River port represents last year's harvest. Much of that corn was collected by local elevators before the Starlink crisis became apparent. University of Minnesota entomology professor David Andow says it will take years to rid Starlink from the grain system.

"Some of next year's corn seed has been found to be contaminated with the Starlink gene inadvertently, so seed producers found that the pollen from the Starlink moved further than expected," says Andow.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will purchase and destroy as much as $20 million worth of contaminated seed, and has requested that all seed distributors vigorously test their stocks for the hybrid. The Starlink saga has brought a new awareness to the problem of pollen drift - something largely responsible for the spread of the GMO corn. Mac Ehrhardt of the Albert Lea Seed House says it could be impossible to find GMO-free corn.

"I don't think it's possible to guarantee that you have corn that's 100 percent GMO- free. There may be very isolated spots in the mountains somewhere where the seed is GMO-free, if the seed stock was also GMO-free. Other than that, it would be impossible to guarantee 100 percent GMO-free seed corn or grain," says Ehrhardt.

That's a problem, because in places like Europe and Japan there's little tolerance for genetically modified products. Since 1997 U.S. farmers selling GMO produce have been deprived a piece of the $200 million European corn market. Now there are concerns that continued cross-contamination will affect the state's organic farmers, who've made valuable inroads into the global organic market. Minnesota's Commissioner of Agriculture Gene Hugoson says it's vital for farmers to understand where their crops will eventually end up, and understand the standards imposed by specific countries. But Hugoson's warnings may be too late and U.S. farmers may be facing increasing economic isolation.

Related links:

  • EPA's Office of Science Coordination and Policy
    Final report assessing the scientific implications of Starlink corn. (PDF)
  • EPA
    General information on Starlink corn.
  • University of Minnesota Extension
    Advisories on Starlink corn.