Following a series of high profile and extremely costly food recalls, every major US agricultural/food processing company is becoming understandably obsessed with testing genetically engineered corn for the Cry9C protein, banned for human consumption due to fears it could prompt an allergic reaction. While testers forage for banned GM grains however, it is the US farmers that are feeling the pinch.
Hitting the farmers hardest
The majority of Iowa farmers still support GM crops in principle, as they deliver higher yields and reduce the need for pesticides, but when the impact of the StarLink debacle started to hit home farmers realised that they were among the parties who are losing out.
No actual health hazards have been officially associated with the protein and StarLink, but the risk is enough to prompt recalls, and the true extent of this is becoming apparent with the issue of contamination.
Grain is notoriously difficult to contain, and farmers are now beginning to find whole shipments of their non-GM grain produce rejected because tests carried out by food manufacturers have shown that somewhere along the chain, the grain picked up even just one stray StarLink kernel.
Maybe the transporting truck was not entirely cleaned out, or maybe kernels from fields belonging to neighbouring farms simply blew over. Many farmers are now claiming that they were not made aware of the government’s recommendation that a 660ft buffer zone be maintained between GM and non-GM fields.
It is turning out to be a logistical nightmare as engineers admit that the grain handling system that transports stock in bulk was built with economies of scale in mind, not minute segregation.
Compensation for the losses of this bio-technical debacle is immense. Not only must farmers be reimbursed for the costs of lost cargoes already shouldered, but also the loss of opportunities in potential markets. The EU and Japan are notoriously sceptical of GM foods and the extent of consumer concern is beginning to be reflected in the demand for GM labelling, which may lead to a huge drop in sales. Corn prices have already slumped drastically, and they could go further.
StarLink’s creator, Aventis CropScience, has now withdrawn its license for further sale, and while it received less than US$1m in licensing fees, it is stand to lose several hundred million dollars in attempts to resolve the issue. It admits that it is unable to account for 10% of the 350,000 acres planted this year and has already spent vast sums on supplying kits to test for the Cry9C protein to grain processors and elevators nation-wide.
Set back the industry
For the biotech industry as a whole, StarLink may be a harbinger of multi-million dollar hassles to come. With the entire recent furore, and the complete lack of assurances concerning contamination and potential market, many farmers will be making personal economic choices against planting any GM crops next season.
The Archer Daniels grain processor has warned farmers via radio advertisements that it will not be accepting GM crops that have not gained worldwide approval and this is a huge blow for the companies that have spent billions of dollars developed higher-yield, insect resistant crops and hoped to deliver medicine and vaccines in the future.