The Agriculture Department will spend up to $20 million this year to compensate seed companies for corn mixed with an unapproved genetically modified variety -- the first direct federal bailout of food producers harmed by biotechnology.
Using funds normally lent to farmers faced with natural disasters such as drought and flood, the Agriculture Department will buy back between 300,000 and 400,000 bags of corn seed found to contain the protein engineered into StarLink corn, officials said yesterday.
Experts said the StarLink protein was most likely bred inadvertently into the seed corn through the drift of pollen from other cornfields. The genetically engineered protein does not pose an immediate health threat, officials said, but it is not approved for human use and its presence has caused massive recalls and disruptions for corn exporters.
"There is no way the taxpayers should bail out Aventis for the genetic pollution they created"
Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth
"The idea here is to get a program up and running as an incentive to farmers to participate before the planting season," said Agriculture Department spokesman Kevin Herglotz. "The goal is containment."
The buyback offer follows reports last week that seed companies had detected small amounts of the StarLink protein in some corn. Agriculture Department officials said yesterday they believe that the seed with the StarLink protein had been found and segregated by distributors before being sold to farmers, who begin planting corn this month. They said the problem would not affect spring planting.
StarLink was developed by Aventis CropScience and was planted on less than 0.02 percent of corn cropland in 2000. Officials said yesterday that the modified protein, designed to combat the European corn borer, had been found in less than 1 percent of the nation's corn seed.
The Agriculture Department announcement said that $15 million to $20 million would be needed for the corn-seed buyback and that details would be sent directly to seed companies this week. Herglotz said that the department was not asking Aventis to reimburse it for the costs but that "reimbursement has not been ruled out for the future." Aventis declined to comment on potential reimbursements.
Some critics of biotechnology denounced the department's announcement, calling it a misuse of public money.
"There is no way the taxpayers should bail out Aventis for the genetic pollution they created," said Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, which discovered StarLink corn in taco chips last fall. "The company would benefit from the profits on their patent, and should pay to bring it back when there's a problem."
But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the buyback is necessary because "we cannot stand another market disruption like StarLink caused last year."
"USDA's plan to get seed corn with traces of StarLink off the market should help significantly to reduce the risk of such a repeat," he said. "Still, it is a big concern that StarLink showed up in seed corn where it was not expected. Clearly, the system did not work."
The federal funds will come from the Agriculture Department's Commodity Credit Corp. and will be paid only to smaller seed companies and those that did not have licensing agreements with Aventis. Department officials said Aventis will handle the problems of its former licensees, but the company declined to comment.
More than 300 corn-based products were recalled last year because they contained some StarLink, and U.S. corn exports to Japan and South Korea declined after American corn with StarLink was discovered there.
Federal authorities approved StarLink for animal use in 1998 but have not allowed it for human use because of concern that it breaks down more slowly than other genetically engineered corn and might cause allergic reactions. The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday that it would no longer consider registering a biotech pesticide like StarLink for animal feed but not for people.
Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America said the federal buyback is appropriate because government mistakes led to the StarLink debacle.
"Farmers and seed companies, through no fault of their own, have corn cross-bred with StarLink," she said. "The whole problem arose because the EPA made the unwarranted assumption that it could be grown for animals and could be kept out of the human food supply. It was a mistake, and I don't think farmers should go broke as a result."
Agriculture Department officials said they based their estimates of the buyback's cost on the results of a survey the American Seed Trade Association conducted last week. The group reported that the prevalence of StarLink kernels was low -- about 800 per bag of 80,000 kernels. But bags with any StarLink kernels will be destroyed, Agriculture Department officials said.
The presence of StarLink in seed corn underscores the growing realization that proteins from many genetically modified varieties of corn are showing up in all corn hybrids. Federal regulations require the planting of non-biotech buffers around modified cornfields, but officials say corn pollen can travel for miles and is apparently being carried well beyond the buffers.
"I think it's already difficult to find corn with a zero level for genetically modified events," said Charles Hurburgh, a professor at Iowa State University and director of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative. The more biotech corn is planted, he said, "the more chance that all corn will show trace levels" of genetically modified proteins.
Although the use of StarLink corn has been limited, about 25 percent of all corn planted in the United States last year was genetically engineered.
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