USDA Gives Approval to new Pesticide-Promoting GE Corn
World's First GE Biofuels Corn Threatens Contamination of Food-Grade Corn. Impacts on Human Health, Environment, and Farmers Not Assessed
Center Urges Rethink of "Food for Fuel" Policy
Washington, D.C. (January 15, 2009) - The Center for Food Safety today urged the incoming U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) to refrain from approving the world's first genetically engineered (GE) crop designed specifically for fuel, not food. The Center maintains that this GE "biofuels corn" will contaminate food-grade corn, and has not been properly assessed for potential adverse effects on human health, the environment, or farmers' livelihoods. The Center also believes it is irresponsible to engineer corn for fuel use at a time when massive diversion of corn to ethanol has played a significant role in raising food prices and thus exacerbating world hunger.
The USDA is accepting public comments on its cursory impacts assessment of the corn until January 20th. The Obama Administration's USDA could then approve the corn or postpone any final decision until a proper, comprehensive assessment is prepared. In the latter case, the corn could continue to be grown under USDA regulatory oversight, as at present.
The GE corn at issue - known as Event 3272 - is genetically engineered to contain high levels of a heat-resistant and acid-tolerant enzyme derived from exotic, marine microorganisms. This enzyme has not been adequately assessed for its potential to cause allergies, a key concern with new biotech crops, and could also have negative impacts on soil carbon cycling. The corn-embedded enzyme breaks down starches into sugars, the first step in conversion of corn to ethanol. At present, ethanol plants add a different and familiar version of this enzyme to accomplish the same purpose. The corn was developed by Syngenta, the Swiss-based agrichemical and biotechnology firm.
"The Bush Administration's USDA rushed this GE corn to the brink of approval without giving any serious consideration to its potential impacts on human health, the environment, or the economy," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. "Syngenta's biofuels corn will inevitably contaminate food-grade corn, and likely trigger substantial rejection in our corn export markets, hurting farmers. We urge the Obama Administration to give this first-ever GE industrial crop a careful and thorough assessment before making a final decision."
Only four countries - accounting for less than 6% of US corn exports - have approved Syngenta's biofuels corn for import. Major markets like Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and China, as well as Russia, the EU and Switzerland, have not approved the corn, even though submissions were filed for import clearance in these countries nearly three years ago. South Africa denied import clearance on health grounds in 2006.
"The resemblance to StarLink is uncanny," continued Freese. "Much like StarLink, Syngenta's biofuels corn poses allergy concerns, is not meant for human food use, and is not approved in export markets. It's hard to believe that USDA has forgotten the substantial harm StarLink caused to farmers and the US food industry, but apparently it has."
StarLink was a GE corn variety approved only for animal feed and industrial use because of concerns it could cause allergies if used in human foods. Despite measures to keep StarLink separate from food-grade corn, it contaminated the human food supply in 2000-2001. Hundreds reported allergic reactions they believe were linked to StarLink. Food companies recalled over 300 corn-based products, export markets sent back StarLink-contaminated corn shipments, and farmers suffered substantial economic losses as a result. Seventeen state Attorneys General sued StarLink's developer, Aventis CropScience, to partially recover damages.
Leading food experts have blamed excessive conversion of corn to ethanol for exacerbating the world food crisis by driving up prices of corn and other staples. The World Bank has reported an 83% rise in food prices from 2005 to 2008, and estimates that 100 million additional people have been pushed into hunger and poverty as a result. USDA data show that 23% of US corn (3 billion bushels) was converted to ethanol in 2007, jumping to over 30% (3.7 billion bushels) in 2008, with further increases expected as more ethanol refineries are constructed.
"In addition to all the other problems with this biofuels corn, it is perverse to engineer a staple crop to feed automobiles rather than people in the midst of a food crisis," added Freese.
The Center for Food Safety is national, non-profit, membership organization founded in 1997 to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. On the web at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org