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Starlink™: Fallout From A Shooting Biotech Star

Stephen Moose
Assistant Professor,
Maize Functional Genomics
Department of Crop Sciences
(217) 244-6308
Stephen Moose

Many producers in Illinois have planted and will soon harvest corn and soybean varieties that have been engineered for enhanced traits through biotechnology. Do each of these producers have systems in place that will ensure the segregation of varieties that may have restrictions on their sale to either domestic or export markets? The story of StarLink™ corn during the fall 2000 harvest season illustrated that having such systems is and will continue to be important to agricultural profitability.

StarLink hybrids were developed and marketed by Aventis Corporation (through Garst and a number of other seed dealers) to contain the stacked biotechnology traits of resistance to both the European corn borer and Liberty™ herbicide. StarLink differed from the other commercially available corn-borer resistant varieties in that it contained a novel type of Bt toxin gene, Cry9C. The new Bt gene in StarLink provided an alternative to the Cry1A Bt genes in other commercial hybrids, so StarLink was viewed as a useful tool in managing the possible evolution of corn-borer resistance to Bt toxins.

Figure 1. The StarLink controversy revealed the need to improve procedures for commodity segregation on the farm. Producers should plant varieties in ways that minimize potential contamination by pollen flow from nearby fields. Harvest, transport, and storage should be conducted in ways that minimize the opportunities for mixing of different crop varieties. Harvest

However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that the Cry9C protein in StarLink has characteristics of known allergens, though Cry9C itself has not yet been documented to actually be allergenic. Thus, the EPA gave Aventis approval to market StarLink varieties only if the harvested corn was channeled to nonhuman food uses, such as animal feed or ethanol production. Aventis began marketing StarLink on a limited scale in 1999 and required growers to restrict StarLink grain to nonfood uses.

The split approval granted to Aventis for StarLink did not go unnoticed by groups opposed to the application of biotechnology to agriculture. They realized that factors such as pollen drift from StarLink corn to other varieties, the lack of adequate identity preservation procedures in the commodity handling system, and grower disregard for the terms of their agreements with Aventis would lead to StarLink ending up in grain used for human food products. Last September, a coalition of health, consumer, and environmental groups reported that StarLink had been found in taco shells sold by Kraft. StarLink subsequently also was found in a number of other corn-based food products, as well as in export shipments to Japan, Korea, and Denmark.

Grain elevators

Figure 2. Grain elevators serve as the point of entry for the majority of commodity grains and
are responsible for meeting market needs. Effective communication between producers,
commodity handlers, and buyers is essential to maximize profitability for identity preserved grains.

The illegal presence of StarLink in food products and the grain commodity system had negative impacts on nearly every sector of agribusiness. Kraft and other food companies recalled StarLink-containing products. Aventis pulled StarLink from the market and cooperated with the USDA to offer premiums on StarLink corn to prevent further contamination of commodity supplies and channel StarLink for approved uses. This effort will cost Aventis an estimated $1 billion. Corn exports, particularly to Japan, have decreased this year. Grain elevators and transportation enterprises were forced to conduct tests for the presence of StarLink and segregate shipments. Growers—some of whom did not grow StarLink but were unknowingly affected when StarLink pollen contaminated their fields—have been faced with rejection of grain intended for sale in the commodity market. In addition, the numerous stories that appeared in the media concerning StarLink eroded public confidence in agricultural biotechnology and the government's regulation of this industry.

It is clear that StarLink should have never made it into the human food supply. However, despite the extensive media hype regarding the potential allergenicity of StarLink corn, it is now evident that StarLink did not pose any significant risk to food safety. Scientific evaluations have determined that the amount of Cry9C protein present in corn products made with StarLink was very low. Furthermore, conventional processing destroys much of what little Cry9C is present in most corn-based foods, except for those such as taco shells or corn chips that undergo minimal processing. Most importantly, a joint investigation conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that no evidence of an allergic reaction to the Cry9C protein could be found among 28 people who claimed they experienced allergic reactions after eating corn products containing StarLink (see http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehhe/Cry9cReport/cry9creport.pdf).

What lessons might be learned from StarLink? Most importantly, StarLink revealed the significant gaps in communication among different participants in the production and marketing of commodity grains, particularly in their ability to deal with biotech or "genetically modified" varieties. StarLink also illustrated the difficulties in developing identity preservation systems, both on the farm and in the marketplace. However, Aventis and the USDA demonstrated that with appropriate financial incentives (in this case, 25 cents/bushel), segregation channels can be established. The government regulatory agencies have learned that approval of biotech varieties for specific sectors of a commodity market is impractical and that more definitive assessments of product safety are required before permitting commercial sales. In the wake of StarLink, one might suspect that the tide of public opinion may be turning against agricultural biotechnology. However, a survey conducted by undergraduate students in my "Biotechnology in Agriculture" class this spring indicated that, fortunately, this does not appear to be the case.

Like other shooting stars, StarLink provides the opportunity to make a wish. One wish would be that the developers of biotech varieties, growers, grain handlers, processors, and the marketers of regulation this consumer products act together to establish guidelines for the creation of effective identity preservation systems. Such systems not only will meet the short-term need to segregate genetically modified (GM) from non-GM crops, but also will be absolutely essential in realizing the full promise of biotechnology in adding value to agriculture. It is my hope that through cooperation, this wish will come true for the benefit of all involved in agriculture. grain commodity handling systems
Figure 3. StarLink illustrated that identity
preservation presents significant challenges
but also new market opportunities for bulk
grain commodity handling systems.

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