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Grain of doubt; other news

(Friday, July 15, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. 'Mystery'of China's GM corn imports
2. Japan finds more Bt10 corn
3. New corn variety combats GMO concerns
4. Grain of doubt
5. It pays to grow non-GM crops
6. GM contaminated crops found in Australia

1. 'Mystery'of China's GM corn imports

Lloyd's List
July 14, 2005
Issue #58954; Markets; Pg. 4

THE Chinese government's recent decision to allow imports of genetically modified corn has baffled grain experts, write Namrata Nadkarni and Priya Mistry .

Last week, China allowed imports of the Monsanto-engineered NK603 variety of corn. Although this would imply an increase of US origin GM corn, analysts believe that China is unlikely to import large quantities of corn in the near future.

In a statement from its Beijing office, the US Department of Agriculture said: "China has completed regulatory approval of a corn biotech variety, the final in a series of approvals for US biotech varieties."

China had already approved seven other varieties of GM corn for import, and with the final variety now approved, Mike Johanns, the US Agriculture Secretary told Reuters: "A potential obstacle (to the US sourced imports) has been eliminated."

However, a London-based dry bulk analyst said: "China imports very little corn. The country has been a traditional exporter of corn, only importing in the mid-1990s when there was a shortage. Since then, China only imports corn for a specific purpose.

"The country has had a good corn crop last year and the harvest this year looks like it will be similar. They also have extensive stocks of corn."

The exact amount in stocks was unknown.

"China saw a corn harvest of 130m tonnes last year and the predicted harvest for 2005 is 128m tonnes, meaning that their production is virtually unchanged," the analyst added.

"In fact, over the past 12 months, they have been exporting more than most people expect. Chinese corn exports for the first four months of this year were 2.3m tonnes, which is the exact amount that was exported for the whole of 2004. Why the government would be granting approvals to import corn is a mystery to me.

"The only possible reason I can think of for this is that they are probably laying the groundwork for future imports of grain in the case of a corn shortage."

The International Grains Council's grain market report provided a possible answer: "China is expected to ship considerably smaller amounts in 2005/06 due to growing domestic demand."

If domestic demand were to rise significantly over the next year, the government may be forced to import corn in order to maintain its stocks and keep market prices in check.

The analyst said: "Chinese statistics are quite unreliable, so we can't be sure exactly how much they have in stock. This decision by the government would imply that they plan to import corn some time in the future and that they felt it necessary to complete the groundwork now."

He felt that another reason for the approval of GM corn could be quality requirements. "Most GM corn isn't really for human consumption, it is primarily used for animal feed," he said. "It is possible that this feed meal may require certain qualities that can easily be found in GM corn."

According to the IGC, China is expected to import 100,000 tonnes of corn this year. This grain could come from a variety of countries including the European Union, Argentina and the US.

A grain trader said: "Just because China has approved GM corn doesn't necessarily rule out imports from other sources."

2. Japan Finds More Bt10 Corn

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones, 7/12/05) -- Japan has discovered the unapproved Bt10 genetically modified organism in yet another shipment from the U.S., making it the fifth such find since the beginning of June, a Japanese government official said Tuesday.

Shin Yokoyama, agriculture counselor at the Japanese Embassy here, said 3,880 metric tons of corn were removed from a U.S. shipment that arrived in a port in Kashima, Japan. He said the corn was secured before it could reach the market.

Japan still tests for Bt10 with a zero tolerance level, but the country's Food Safety Commission is now considering the possibility of relaxing that.

Japan, the largest foreign market for U.S. corn, imported 603.8 million bushels in the 2003-04 marketing year, according to USDA data compiled by the National Corn Growers Association.

Switzerland's Syngenta AG announced March 22 that it inadvertently sold a limited amount of the unapproved Bt10 corn seed instead of the approved Bt11 to U.S. farmers who planted it on 37,000 acres from 2001 through 2004.

U.S. government and Syngenta officials have maintained that even though Bt10 was never approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Environmental Protection Agency, it is safe and nearly identical to Bt11 corn, which has been approved in the U.S.

3. New Corn Variety Combats GMO Concerns

By Todd Neeley DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) -- A variety of corn developed by Nebraska's Hoegemeyer Hybrids could help farmers avoid headaches from inadvertent cross-pollination of their fields with genetically modified crops.

Monsanto Co. sued producers for millions of dollars claiming violations of licensing laws in the 1990s. In some cases fields were contaminated by pollen or seed from a previous year's crop that sprouted in fields with non-GMO varieties, and were not the result of farmers knowingly violating licensing agreements.

A new seed called PuraMaize has the potential to alleviate concerns producers and the international community may have about GMOs.

When GMOs hit the scene in 1996 Tom Hoegemeyer, the company's chief technology officer, was a graduate student at Iowa State University.

At that time, he said, he started looking for natural ways to combat cross-pollination.

Hoegemeyer said he believes his company found the answer in a seed created by using a natural corn characteristic found in a few exotic corn varieties.

"It is a natural genetic system," he said. "What it does is it recognizes what genes are being carried by the individual pollen grains. If it is the correct genes, pollination occurs as normal."

According to information from Hoegemeyer Hybrids the new seed provides field level control, but does not control GMO presence in harvest machinery, storage bins or shipping containers.

The seed will allow GMO and non-GMO cornfield production side by side, Hoegemeyer said, which can help ensure that corn produced for specialty starches, cornflakes, tacos and other products will remain free of GMOs.

The company received a U.S. patent on PuraMaize in April and has other patents pending worldwide, according to a company news release.

The seed is expected to be ready for distribution in 2006. The seed will be sold on a limited basis in areas across the Corn Belt states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin, and will be more widely marketed starting in 2007, according to the company.

PuraMaize will be sold through Hoegemeyer as well as other seed companies across the Corn Belt.

With genetically modified corn garnering a large share of the nation's corn crop -- Minnesota farmers planted 63 percent of the state's crop to GM corn, Nebraska had 60 percent -- there is likely to be a demand for PuraMaize in the Corn Belt.

Tom Hoegemeyer said organic cattle and dairy farmers could also use it to assure their animals eat only non-GMO grain.

The company currently markets primarily hybrid corn, soybeans, sorghum and alfalfa in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri.

"We plan to broadly license this technology so as to make it available to farmers in as many places as the market demands," said Chris Hoegemeyer, company vice president.

Company officials say it's not clear if the new seed will play a role in easing GMO concerns of the European Union and Japan. Those countries limit the amount of accidental shipment of approved and non-approved GMOs in U.S. imports.

However, Hoegemeyer said field tests have shown that PuraMaize meets established GMO shipment guidelines in the EU and Japan.

Chris Hoegemeyer said the EU allows less than 1 percent of any corn shipment to contain GMOs.

There are indications that the PuraMaize seed even exceeds the EU standards.

"We have been working on this for the better part of a decade and we think it is at the smaller side of even our belief," he said about the standards.

Tom Hoegemeyer said, "What we hope is, number one, that it is a demonstration that technology can be used for lots of things and it doesn't mean just GMOs. What I think this will do in international trade, is it gives people options. Many times the right thing to do is to provide people what they ask for. We certainly aren't anti-GMO; it has a huge future. But we want to enable the production of a type of corn for whatever market."

Todd Neeley can be reached at Todd.Neeley@dtn.com.

4. Grain of Doubt:
Genetically modified rice in Eastern North Carolina is setting off a whirlwind of criticism and concern

By David Rice

PLYMOUTH - North Carolina farmers haven't grown rice in many years, so they welcome the green sprigs now poking out of a flooded field near an agricultural-research station here.

But this is not your Uncle Ben's rice.

Last month, with approval of two permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ventria Bioscience, a biotechnology company in California, planted 75 acres of rice that has been genetically engineered to produce proteins found in human milk, saliva and tears.

The company says that the proteins it will extract from the rice eventually could be used in granola bars, sports drinks or rehydration formula to help infants in the Third World avoid death from diarrhea.

Environmentalists say that the rice poses a significant threat to other crops and to the human food chain.

The planting is on private land near the state-owned Tidewater Research Station in Washington County. On the way to North Carolina, Ventria encountered opposition from rice growers, food vendors and environmentalists in California and Missouri.

When the company tried to grow its rice in Missouri this spring, beer-maker Anheuser-Busch threatened not to buy any rice grown in Missouri. The two companies eventually reached a truce in which Ventria agreed not to grow genetically modified rice within 120 miles of commercial rice crops.

Environmentalists and others say that the recent planting of Ventria's rice crop near Plymouth brings the international debate over genetically modified foods to North Carolina.

It also tests the state's considerable efforts to throw out a welcome mat for the biotech industry.

"If it wasn't a food crop, I think it would be a lot less controversial. But they've chosen to introduce a genetically modified, pharmaceutical-producing food crop in North Carolina," said Hope Shand, the research director at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration in Carrboro.

"They were run out of California, run out of Missouri, and then welcomed with open arms in Eastern North Carolina," Shand said. "I just can't see this as a viable rural-development strategy for North Carolina.

"Many scientists have concluded that it's virtually impossible to contain these pharmaceutical crops," Shand said. "It's not just a bunch of wild-eyed environmentalists who are concerned about this. We have the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Products Association who are concerned about this experiment."

Researchers also use a nursery at the research station, less than a mile from Ventria's test site, to grow seed stock for new rice varieties. Scientists involved in those tests say that Plymouth was chosen for the tests because it is 650 miles east of any commercial rice crop.

At least two scientists wrote to the USDA to say that there is a remote possibility that pollen or disease from Ventria's rice could contaminate rice grown at the nearby nursery and be distributed to rice growers nationwide.

"It's not smart to introduce this pharmaceutical rice so close to germplasm rice," said Jane Rissler, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

"That's the fundamental mistake - pharmaceuticals should not be grown in food crops," Rissler said. "With human error, with the vagaries of weather, it's going to be practically impossible to keep this out of the food supply."

Company officials say that the risks are overstated, and that they take every precaution to isolate Ventria's rice.

They point out that, unlike corn, rice is self-pollinating. The plant's male and female organs are contained within the same flower, so its pollen rarely travels farther than a few feet.

"There is a .001 percent chance of cross-pollination within 10 or 15 feet," said Somen Nandi, the director of molecular breeding for Ventria, who is evaluating which of the company's rice varieties grow best in North Carolina.

At the test site, an 18-inch dike borders the rice plots to keep water in the field. A dedicated ditch provides water only to the rice field, and water is screened before it leaves the field to keep rice from traveling.

Company officials say they will use equipment that is used only to grow and harvest Ventria's rice. After harvest, they will drain the field and burn the remnants to destroy plant matter.

And they say that adequate buffers are in place to protect other crops from any crop migration. Nandi pointed to a field of cotton 200 feet away, across a dirt road and a ditch.

"Not a single plant of rice will grow there. Not a single plant," he said. "It (the rice plot) is a completely unique ecological niche."

Like much of the cotton grown in Eastern North Carolina, the cotton across the road has been genetically modified for resistance to the herbicide Roundup so that farmers can overspray young plants and make fewer applications overall.

"This (cotton) is 100 percent GMO," Nandi said. "What's the problem with rice?"

Scott Deeter, Ventria's president, says that human proteins for use in rehydration formulas such as Pedialyte could help prevent the deaths of 1.9 million children that the World Health Organization estimates are killed by diarrhea each year.

"Breast-fed babies are healthier than babies who are fed with infant formula. These two proteins are part of the reason for that," Deeter said.

"It's a significant human-health problem," he said. "The challenge, of course, is we've got to have a cost-effective, affordable therapy. That's the advantage of using the rice."

Once harvested, Ventria's rice would not enter the food supply as grain, he said. It would be pulverized into a powder. "We're not directly feeding the rice. We're using the rice sort of as a factory, and we're extracting the proteins," he said. Though it won USDA approval to grow its rice here, Ventria is still waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve its two human proteins - lactoferrin and lysozyme - for use in foods. The proteins are being tested in Peru for use in treating acute diarrhea, Deeter said.

"Putting proteins that are in saliva in a plant - every time we swallow, we're swallowing these proteins," Deeter said. "The only difference here that I can see is that it's new."

If Ventria wins FDA approval of its products, he said, the company will try to expand production, depending on demand.

"At peak, 20,000 to 30,000 acres is a possibility if we're very successful. How much of that is in North America, and ultimately in North Carolina, is an open question," he said.

Researchers at N.C. State University who are monitoring the project say they are investigating many of the claims from environmentalists and the food industry that Ventria's rice crop could migrate, cross-pollinate with other plants and contaminate the human food supply.

"Our interest is in monitoring these very sorts of issues," said Ron Heiniger, an associate professor of crop science who works at the Plymouth research station.

"That's what we're concerned about - do we get rice where we didn't get rice before?" he said. "I'd like the opportunity to know scientifically what the risks are."

Because no rice is grown commercially in North Carolina, researchers will know exactly where it came from if it shows up outside the test plots, Heiniger said.

"We'd have the environment to isolate the crop ... and prevent the crop movement," he said. "If it is a worst-case scenario, if we get a lot of movement of rice, then what better place to know that?"

Washington County lies along a major bird-migratory route. Bald eagles soar over the research station and the rice field in summer, occasionally plucking catfish from ponds at the research station. Rather than pollen migration, Heiniger said, the possibility of movement of the rice crop through waterfowl and other birds that feed on rice seed is researchers' biggest concern.

They also want to study how to keep rice seed from washing away during major floods like those caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

"It'd be a miracle, frankly, to get the pollen to cross-pollinate," he said. "There are unknowns, as with anything.... You expect the unexpected - such as birds."

Deeter and Nandi, though, point to studies that found that once birds eat rice seeds, they digest them completely.

"Once they're digested, they're not viable," Deeter said. "It seems plausible, but it's not really supported by the science.... You've got to use the science, because if you don't use the science, you're just using emotion."

And despite his own questions about birds, Heiniger sees enormous potential for farmers who grow Ventria's rice.

"They think they could have a huge impact on the health of children in the Third World," he said. "These proteins right now come out of mammalian tissue.... We're talking hundreds of dollars per ounce. If they can grow them in rice that can be readily harvested, we're talking cents per pound."

Genetically modified crops such as Roundup-ready cotton and soybeans, as well as corn that has been genetically altered for insect resistance, are already common in North Carolina.

So in rural Washington County, residents appear far more worried about the U.S. Navy's plans to build an outlying landing field (OLF) than about genetically modified organisms.

Local farmers who are accustomed to growing genetically modified corn, cotton and soybeans appear to welcome Ventria's overtures as a new opportunity for value-added agriculture.

"Several of them have offered - 'You can use my land,'" Heiniger said.

Joe Landino, the president of the Blackland Farm Managers Association, a group of about 50 large-scale farmers in several eastern counties, says that farmers are excited about growing pharmaceutical rice and think that Ventria's effort will be a tightly controlled experiment.

Organic farmers, in particular, are often wary of genetically modified crops that could creep into their fields. But the closest organic farmer to Ventria's test site says he isn't worried.

"It's a virtual impossibility," said Wade Hubers, who grows organic corn and soybeans in Hyde County, roughly 12 miles from the research station.

Hubers said that the organic corn and soybeans he grows fetch twice the price of conventional crops, more than making up for the lower yield on organic crops.

But the potential benefits from Ventria's rice far outweigh the risks, he said.

"They're going to have a good buffer around it," he said. Though there are some risks, Hubers said, "I look at this rice kind of like a pharmaceutical company growing it in a greenhouse. It's that kind of risk."

When rice growers in Missouri opposed Ventria's plans there, "I think they totally overreacted to it, but that's to North Carolina's benefit," Hubers said.

Landino said that despite environmentalists' worries, economic forces will continue to drive demand for drugs and other products that can be grown in plants.

"There's opposition to this biotechnology worldwide. But it's all in vain, because people are going to be begging for these biotech products," he said. "You don't want to shut down something that can be so productive in the future."

He also noted that although there is no commercial rice grown in North Carolina, there are a few small plantings for ducks and other waterfowl.

"We've grown rice before down here," he said. "We know we can grow rice. This is just a special project that needs a little more intensive management."

* David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at drice@wsjournal.com

5. It pays to grow non-GM crops

Monday, 11 July , 2005

Dan Heffelmire, President of H&B Specialities Inc that deals with food quality grain products, is one who personally has no problems with genetically modified (GM) food. But when it comes to business, his problems have only increased with more farmers in the US taking to cultivation of GM crops.

"Our problems have increased with the rise in GM crops. We export corn grown traditionally to Japan and South Korea. Both these countries do not accept GM crops. As a result, we are now left doing more paperwork to ensure that our products are accepted by our buyers," Heffelmire told a group of visiting journalists.

The paperwork for those exporting corn or soyabean to countries such as the European Union, Japan and Korea begin from the farmgate.

First, the farmer has to sign papers saying the crop has not been contaminated with any GM material.

Then, the silo owner who buys the crop has to give a similar undertaking before the shipper gives his.

"We also have to carefully agree on our contracts. We sign in a way that says these crops will conform to norms at the delivery point. The buyers too come here to check before taking delivery," says a corn exporter.

The delivery point means the place where the crop is filled in a barge that is sent by river to the nearest port, which in case of places such as Bloomington could be some 750 km away.

The barges are tightly sealed and secured from being contaminated by any foreign material.

The additional paperwork pays since the importers are willing to pay some premium for ensuring GM-free products.

Corn bought by Japan and Korea is converted into snacks, while it is also used for making starch.

"This sort of check and balance has helped in ensuring that our consignments have less contamination. Though our contracts allow for about five per cent contamination and trash, the level of foreign material in our shipments has come down to around one per cent," the exporter says.

On the farmers' side, firms such as H&B Specialities have to ensure that the crop is properly insured from contamination by GM crops. "We ensure that there is a proper refuge area or buffer area," Heffelmire said.

Corn growers are asked to have a refuge area of 20 per cent. This means towards the end of the area where corn is sown, it is mandatory for farmers to grow 20 per cent non-GM crop at the end of the farm to ensure that neighbouring farms are not affected due to pollination of GM crops.

"We have to keep an eye at every stage to ensure that the shipments to our consumers conform to the stipulated norms," said Heffelmire.

"But we get a premium ranging between 5 and 25 per cent for the products and growers also benefit from this," he said.

Another exporter said corn traders in the US were now confident of exporting to the EU.

"We can meet even a lower level of contamination/trash. But the problem is that the EU buyers demand that these conditions be met at the point of delivery, which we are sceptical of," he said.

The problem is because the trash/contamination level could differ from what it is at the point of loading and point of delivery. "It could be higher at the delivery port for no fault of ours," he added.

But exporters, experts and growers agree that growing a traditional or GM crop variety depends on what is economically beneficial to farmers.

6. GM contaminated crops found

14 July 05, The Advertiser

AUTHORITIES have confirmed the first known contamination of a food crop with genetically modified material in Australia.

The Federal Government has rushed to assure the public about the safety of the canola and the integrity of current moratoria on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food crops.

Opponents say the contamination could have severe consequences for exporters, while Labor says the incident raises serious doubts about the Government's management of the quarantine system.

The GM material was found during routine testing by the Australian Barley Board (ABB) of an export consignment of Victorian canola seeds that was bound for Japan. About 0.01 per cent of the consignment contained the GM material.

The Government's Gene Technology Regulator, Sue Meek, said the modification is known as Topas 19/2 - a variety which provides tolerance to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium. Dr Meek said the GM line, developed by Bayer CropScience, was trialled in Australia before the national regulatory system for gene technology came into effect in 2001 but has been found to be safe for people and the environment. GM canola is being trialled in Victoria but its use in commercial food crops is banned under moratoria in that state and every other jurisdiction except Queensland.

Dr Meek said the GM trait had also been found to be safe in Europe, China, the United States, Canada and Japan.

Trials approved by the regulator were not the source of the contamination and authorities were investigating the source of the material. Victorian Agriculture Minister Bob Cameron said the GM trace was likely to have come from a Canadian gene "inadvertently" imported into Australia in conventional seed.

"It's suggested that the material was probably imported in the late 1990s or early 2000 at a time when there was no approval for GM material to be commercially released in Australia," a spokeswoman for the minister said.

Victorian Primary Industry Department deputy secretary Bruce Kefford said the extremely low level of GM canola technically breached the state's moratorium.

But he said there was no suggestion that any offence had been committed because a farmer would have had to knowingly cultivated GM canola.

The ABB, Australia's wheat exporter AWB, and the Victorian Farmers Federation all said they were not concerned about the incident. Bayer CropScience said trace levels of GM material was a reality in agricultural production systems where seeds are exchanged between countries. "Marketers and farmers meet many quality and impurity parameters for their products every day, so GM is just another one," Bayer's BioScience manager Susie O'Neill said. "The marketers have indicated that their ability to meet their international customer and regulatory standards will be unchanged by this finding."

The federal Opposition said the incident raised questions about the quarantine system and how widespread the GM variety had become in Australia's supposedly GM-free commercial canola crops. "Australian canola exports are worth around $400 million annually. When a buyer asks for GM-free Australian canola then that should be what they get," Labor's agriculture spokesman Gavan O'Connor said. A spokeswoman for federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran declined to comment.

The Network of Concerned Farmers, which opposes GMOs for commercial reasons, said the find had the potential to damage Australian export markets which demand canola be GM-free. "We've had enough of the industry lying to us, saying a little bit of contamination is OK," network spokeswoman and West Australian canola exporter Julie Newman said. "Bayer must take responsibility for this."