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Biotech May Be Widespread in Food

October 19, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Millions of bushels of genetically engineered corn approved only for animals may have already reached the human food supply chain and could show up in a wide range of foods, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

Industry and federal officials are trying to find the corn to buy it back before it is made into more taco shells, chips, corn flakes and other corn products.

``We’re getting it out of the food chain,″ John Wichtrich, vice president and general manager of Aventis FoodSciences of Research Triangle Park, N.C., the developer of the corn, told the Post.

The corn was not approved for humans because of fears it might trigger allergic reactions, but officials do not think its presence in food poses an imminent health risk.

About 260 grain elevators have received the corn this year, Aventis officials told the Post. Wichtrich estimated that about 88 percent of the Aventis corn, called StarLink, was being stored on farms or used for animal feed. But an additional 9 million bushels had already left farms this year. That is the missing corn company officials are tracking and trying to buy back.

Meanwhile, groups opposed to genetically engineered crops accused the government of violating the Endangered Species Act in considering whether to renew licenses for gene-altered crops that are toxic to insects.

The groups, which notified the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday of their intent to sue the agency, said the crops may harm a number of endangered insects such as the Karner Blue butterfly, sometimes found near corn fields.

Registrations for several varieties of genetically engineered corn and cotton are due to expire next year.

The EPA has been gathering research data and consulting with a panel of scientists about the impact of the crops on human health and the environment.

In a preliminary assessment released last month, the agency concluded there was little risk to butterflies or any other insects which the toxin is not supposed to harm. A three-day meeting by the agency’s scientific advisory panel began Wednesday in Arlington, Va.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the EPA would be required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and to take actions to protect the threatened species from the crops.

``We’re certainly open to new scientific information and will take that into consideration as we complete our review,″ said Steve Johnson, a senior EPA official.

A Cornell University study released last year raised concerns about biotech corn after finding that the pollen was toxic to Monarchs in the laboratory. The butterfly feeds on milkweed, which often grows in and around corn fields in the Midwest.

``EPA has had its head in the sand since it learned that genetically engineered corn could be killing Monarch butterflies,″ said Charles Margulis of Greenpeace, one of the groups planning to sue the EPA.

Although pollen from biotech corn can kill Monarch butterflies, there is probably little risk to them around corn fields, based on the latest research, according to the EPA study.

The agency said some scientists even believe the corn may even turn out to be beneficial to the butterflies because farmers are using less chemical pesticides.

The corn and cotton contain a bacterium gene that is inserted into the plant to produce a toxin that kills a major pest, the European corn borer.

The EPA has been concerned that the corn borer and other pests may become resistant to the toxin, which is also used in an insecticide popular with organic farmers.

So far, there has been no evidence of resistant insects, although some insects have shown a temporary tolerance to the toxin, agency scientists said Wednesday.

To prevent the development of resistant insects, the agency requires farmers to plant sections of non-biotech crops within or around the gene-altered varieties


On the Net: Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov

Greenpeace: http://www.greenpeace.org

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