by Anthony Shadid
Boston Globe Staff
Farm & Ranch Guide
Friday, April 20, 2001
Washington - Labeling requirements in Europe and Japan and growing consumer demand for food that is not genetically engineered could require a sweeping overhaul of agricultural sales and marketing in the United States, a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
Farm specialists and some environmental advocates worry that, while such an overhaul might be required - the contamination of corn last year by the unapproved StarLink variety being the latest example - the measures to segregate crops could cost billions of dollars and take years to implement. Even then, they say, their success might be in doubt.
"Contamination can occur at any point in the process, from when the seed goes into the ground to when it's safely in a product some place," said Neil Harl, an economics professor and farm expert at Iowa State University. "It poses a very large problem with substantial economic costs."
Genetically engineered crops - mainly corn, cotton, and soybean - entered the market five years ago, promising a revolution in what we grow and how we grow it. The appeal of plants that can tolerate herbicides or produce their own insecticides led to their rapid grown in the United States is now genetically engineered.
On the horizon is a potpourri of engineered traits - insect-resistant eggplant, tomatoes with anticancer agents, rice high in iron, naturally decaffeinated coffee, and corn that can grow a rabies vaccine.
More and more, the question had become how to segregate those crops from their conventional counterparts - a demand being made by trading partners, some of whom now require labeling. While less wary than Europeans, American consumers, too, have expressed a degree of skepticism over biotech foods. The US organic market, for example, has surged in recent years.
That anxiety was driven home by the scare of StarLink corn, whose presence prompted a costly nationwide recall last year of corn chips, taco shells, and other food products. StarLink, which is engineered to produce a protein toxic to insect larvae, was approved only for use as animal feed out of concern that it might cause allergic reactions in humans.
To forestall a similar episode or to meet organic or export requirements could require the costly and time-consuming segregation of biotech crops from nonbiotech crops, said the report, which was released this week. That would force testing at every step in the process and, in all likelihood, construction and renovation of grain facilities across the county.
"With these real bulk commodities, which are indistinguishable from each other, it does make it more challenging," said Robbin Shoemaker, the report's editor and an official in the USDA's Economic Research Service.
There are already signal that such segregation is needed.
Europe has effectively barred U.S. corn imports over the use of genetically engineered seeds - costing American farmers a $200 million a year market because they are unable and unprepared to segregate different varieties.
Last year, the European Union also began requiring strict labeling for foods whose ingredients exceed a 1 percent limit on genetically engineered content - one of the world's toughest standards. Japan has set the level at 5 percent. No specific tolerance is set for organic foods in the United States.
"At this point, it's going to be very difficult to keep theses crops segregated and it's going to be a major challenge to do so," said Matt Rand, campaign manager for biotech at the National Environmental Trust.
The government report stopped short of putting a price tag on the overhaul, but Harl estimated it could run into the billions of dollars and require three to five years to put into place. While possible, Harl said the likelihood of success for a segregated market is "low."
Even with segregated facilities, up to a bushel of corn can remain in a combine, seed stays in a planter box and elevators mix up crops, he said.
Contamination, either through crops mixing or biotech varieties cross-pollinating with nonbiotech varieties miles away, is the main reason StarLink remains a headache for consumers, farmers, food companies, and the companies responsible for the seed, Aventis CropScience.
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