The USDA recently approved a genetically engineered strain of corn crop known as Enogen for commercial production.
Although designed for ethanol production, there’s a chance Enogen could get into food production as happened with Starlink in 2002. This has various scientists and farmers we’ve talked to worried.
As for why Enogen was approved, check out the long trail of lobbying from Swiss biotech firm Syngenta.
Enogen is an enzyme that was constructed with the express purpose of breaking down the starch in corn to foster a more rapid process in the creation of ethanol.
Enogens's creators claim that it will be a profit machine for farmers growing corn in America as they can sell their Enogen-injected corn directly to ethanol producers at a higher marginal return than corn that is grown for use in food.
Enogen is the creation of a Swiss-based corporation called Syngenta that is the world's biggest producer of pesticides and other 'crop protection' chemicals.
Syngenta has been developing the enzyme for roughly a decade and announced its existence to shareholders in its 2006 Annual Report.
Even though it's created in a lab, Enogen needs to be grown in fields -- which makes contamination a possibility
Which, according to Dr. Margaret Mellon of The Union of Concerned Scientists, could be a real problem.
'Enogen, if it were to cross-pollinate with 'Food-Grade' corn, would have a chemically degenerative affect on that corn,' says Dr. Mellon. 'It would be disastrous for the dry corn that is used by Miller's to produce feed. We are very concerned about creating another StarLink.'
Only a decade ago, a controversial FDA decision to allow the planting of a bio-tech maize crop called 'StarLink' was met with debate followed by debacle and stained with the agency with an air of recrimination.
Aventis, a subsidiary of Bayer, developed Starlink, a strain of corn crop containing a toxin that acted as a chemical repellent which was designed to protect corn from pests.
StarLink was not approved to be grown safely in food but was approved for experimental commercial growth anyway by the FDA despite vocalized fears that any cross-pollination with other corn crops could spread the toxin into the food supply.
Starlink did cross-pollinate, and in 2000 evidence of the toxin in food grade crops caused acres upon acres of crops to be destroyed out of fears over their safety resulting in a mini economic catastrophe for many farmers in 'The Corn Belt.'
Traces of StarLink's toxin are still being found in ground soil today.
That percentage will soar if Enogen is a financial success, says Dr. Mellon.
'We are talking about tens of millions more acres of corn being given over to the production of ethanol throughout the use of this chemical. It is preposterous to say that a rate of planting like that won't raise the risk of contamination for other corn.'
Dr. Mellon, who has read over the plans for Syngenta's cross-pollination prevention program, calls it a 'closed loop system shot through with loopholes that cannot, in any way, insure the prevention of cross-pollination.'
A major critique of Syngenta's prevention program is the lack of regulation in the USDA's ruling that would allow growers of Enogen to also grow corn for use in food, or milling-grade, corn.
Dr. Mellon outlined the dangers inherent in that reality by describing one potential scenario in which a farmer would take his Enogen crop to market in the same truck he used to transport his other crop. Any improper cleaning of the cargo bed would 'almost certainly' result in the exchange of seeds between the two crops.
And Dr. Moore agrees with Dr. Mellon's concerns, 'Syngenta's program looks good on paper but have they really tested it? I doubt it.'
According to Dr. Moore, the organic structure of wheat leaves it susceptible to the effects of Enogen as well, which could be an issue as pollen flies and germinates amongst different crops.
'The internal temperature of baking bread is not high enough to deactivate the chemical reaction of this enzyme,' explains Dr. Moore. 'That would result in any bread being baked with wheat which has come in contact with it to have a mushy, liquidy interior.'
And Syngenta partly concedes those claims.
'Enogen would potentially just make that bread more viscous if cross-pollination were to occur, however unlikely that is,' says Minehart.
A move that was not greeted with applause from Enogen's detractors, who remained most concerned with the enzyme's approval for use in food-grade corn.
'This decision really strikes at the reputation of the FDA,' says Dr. Mellon. 'It makes me really question their motivations as a regulatory body.'
And some in the Public Health sector concur.
'The FDA seems to make decisions based more on lobbying interests and, despite warning after warning from the Public Health community, they seem to keep doing it,' says Rachael Peters, a Lecturer in Public Health at Brooklyn College who specialises in Health and Nutrition Sciences. 'And that's especially true on corn, which is a shame because corn is now in almost everything we eat.'
The United States Department of Agriculture held longer deliberations about Enogen's safety in food grade corn and asked for more data from Syngenta about potential issues regarding cross-pollination.
Syngenta sent their report to the USDA on December 7th, but copies requested by various other groups, including the North American Millers Association, were not provided until late January, leaving them unable to mount an informed challenge to Enogen's approval.
'We didn't see the report until much later than the USDA, even though we requested it with ample time,' says Terri Long, a spokesperson for the NAMA.
That data illustrates Enogen's potential liquefying effect on corn meant for dry usage, and the numerous causes of cross-pollination, but the USDA signed off on the enzyme anyway this February 11th.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- February 11, 2011 -- The North American Millers' Association (NAMA) is disappointed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) decision today to deregulate Syngenta's 3272 Amylase Corn Trait without conditions. USDA failed to use its authority to consider the petition for deregulation as one for the production of a plant made industrial product that would have provided for a more thorough scientific review. Syngenta's own scientific data released last month shows if this corn is co-mingled with other corn, it will have significant adverse impacts on food product quality and performance.
So, how did Syngenta get the U.S. Government to sign off on a potential danger to America's biggest crop?
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