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Industry struggles with biotech corn

(Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press: CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Seed companies, farmers and grain handlers are struggling with how to keep genetically altered corn from mixing with non-biotech crops.

There is no simple way to ensure that biotech varieties go only where they're accepted. Some safeguards are already in place, but the process is still evolving.

Some in the industry say changes aren't happening fast enough to keep up with the steadily increasing use of genetically altered crops.

They fear problems similar to what happened with StarLink in 2000, when the biotech corn not approved for human consumption was accidentally mixed with other crops. The resulting scare triggered food recalls and caused a worldwide drop in corn prices.

``There needs to be some improvement here to avoid a train wreck,'' said Steve Pigg, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

More biotech corn is being planted each year in the United States, with 40 percent of the nation's 79.1 million acres of corn this year being genetically altered. That was up from about one-third of all corn planted last year.

Genetically altered corn is bred to resist plant diseases and pests, allowing producers to increase yields and reduce costs.

With the harvest season just a few weeks away in parts of the Corn Belt, the stakes are high for farmers and grain handlers.

Any co-mingling of grain, however small, headed for a country that won't accept it endangers the entire shipment, said Peter Goldsmith, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois' College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. At least seven biotech corn varieties have not been approved for use in the European Union.

Government leaves it up to the industry to ensure the ``identity preservation'' of crops, said Jeff Squibb with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Spokesmen for Monsanto Co. and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, two major makers of genetically altered seed, said they have programs aimed at making sure farmers and grain handlers know what to do with biotech crops.

``The responsibility lies with the grower,'' said Bryan Hurley, a spokesman for Monsanto. ``But there is an infrastructure that has been built to facilitate this and information and education to go with that.''

Farmers planning to plant biotech seed that isn't approved for export are asked to tell their seed company in the spring which elevator they plan to take the crop to in the fall. Seed companies push growers of biotech crops to work only with elevators equipped for and willing to take them.

``If they aren't, we contact the customer and let them know that the handler they listed is not taking the grain and we offer to help find an alternative outlet,'' said Greg Wandrey, Pioneer's director of product stewardship.

About 2,000 elevators willing to take genetically altered corn are listed in a national directory maintained by the American Seed Trade Association.

Come harvest time, elevator operators depend on farmers to tell them if they have genetically altered crops in their truck.

``I'm counting on it. I need to know it. If I don't know it, I've got zero chance'' of separating biotech grain during a busy harvest, when more than 800,000 bushels of corn can arrive in a single day, said Dave Hastings, general manager of the Ludlow Co-op Elevator Co., which operates in three eastern Illinois counties.

Grain handlers are paying close attention to the issue, but it isn't easy for elevators accustomed to handling large amounts of the same kind of grain to handle smaller segments of a biotech crop, said Jeff Adkisson, executive director of the Feed and Grain Association of Illinois.

Hastings said biotech grain will be stored in separate bins at his company's elevators. He is training his staff to ask more questions when farmers cross the scales, but worries that even that won't be fail-safe.

``Sooner or later when we get busy, we won't ask and we'll miss a guy,'' he said.

National Corn Growers Association: http://www.ncga.com

American Seed Trade Association database: http://asta.farmprogress.com

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Farm-Scene.html