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In the wake of StarLink, should export customers like Europe and Japan trust America’s ability to track and preserve the identity of its agricultural products?
July 17, 2001

Charles Hurburgh, professor in charge of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative at Iowa State University replies:

[EDITOR’S NOTE: StarLink is a type of corn that was genetically modified to produce its own pesticide. Because it contained a protein similar to certain known food allergens, the U.S. EPA approved it only for use in animal feed. But the corn ended up in products for human consumption, and continues to contaminate corn supplies.]

In the short term, there’s no doubt that trust is a little shaky, in places. And the consequence of not having trust is pretty costly. It’s expensive to use the test and pay strategy that commodity markets normally do. Test and pay means that the grain shows up somewhere, you don’t know what it is, you run a test and you look at the numbers and you say, "Okay, I’ll pay you X for the grain." And then the buyer of the grain turns around and resells it to somebody else, who does that same thing—tests and pays—and so you try to get under the limits and so forth for the tests. That’s very expensive in situations where what you’re testing for is at low levels, is hard to measure, is costly to measure. We’ll do that, for a while, there’s no question—we’ll do that and we’ll absorb the costs. We’ll charge as many of them as we can to the biotech companies that have shouldered the burden, but still, we’ll pay a little money for a while. But in the long run, this is also going to show that we’d better have a system that is really built on trust. I think it’s going to strengthen the trust, the need for trust. You need to have systems that are built on documentation and faith in documentation rather than test and pay and see what you can get away with. So in the short run, trust’s a little shaky. In the long run, it’s gonna point out that trust and integrity are the only ways to handle this if we want to have any semblance of cost efficiency in the system.

We have some work to do to make trust and belief in our system credible. No question we have some work to do. StarLink was also a trust issue. It just had one more dimension. It wasn’t approved for food in the U.S. as well as not approved at all in other places. But that’s just one additional dimension compared to some of these other products. And as we all know, the voluntary process, for various reasons—all of them bad, not all of them sinister—didn’t really work. A lot of the reasons it didn’t work were because of cross pollination, lack of knowledge on the part of the producer that something was required, inadvertent mixing at elevators that didn’t know what it was, there was no test—a lot of reasons why the system would have difficulty even though we’re being honest and attempting to do it right. There’s still plenty of reasons. So we’ve got some work to do. That’s why, in the long run, the hottest term right now in the grain handling industry is the concept of certification and traceability. The U.S. grain market is organizing itself fairly quickly to see how it could provide more bulletproof systems for specialty grain segregation and isolation.

So assuming we resolve the StarLink question one way or another, the next issue is going to be crops that are fully approved in the United States but that are not approved in selected markets. The buzzword for diverting those to selected uses is "channeling." That’s the term that’s being used by the industry and by the biotech industry to refer to, essentially, a voluntary process of the farmers selectively marketing the grain. Selectively, so that they know it’s not going to end up in a use that doesn’t want it. There’s an example of such a product right now: roundup ready corn.

Roundup ready corn is fully approved in the United States, I believe it’s fully approved in Japan, and Asia as well. But it’s not approved in the European Union. The European Union stated that they don’t want to have roundup ready corn in either corn or corn products that end up in there. This primarily affects corn gluten feed, a byproduct of corn wet milling, and corn grits, corn flakes, as well as a small amount of whole corn. The challenge will be for the producer to actually take the steps necessary to channel roundup ready corn to approved uses, namely animal feed and food consumption within the United States. But these issues of channeling and separate markets and so forth place a great deal of burden on systems that were developed for high volume commodity handling. It’s a totally new culture for U.S. agriculture. We’ve been commodity producers—all the same, one bushel of corn the same as the next. Grow it as cheap as you can, move it as quick as you can.

At the moment there is no real economic system for this channeling, so this is essentially relying on the integrity and the desire of all players along the line—farmer, grain elevator, seed salesman, everybody—to make that system work. We hope that it’ll work because there are other biotech products nearing release, that if we can’t successfully channel one, we probably won’t successfully channel with the next ones, and we may not get products that we would like out of that, like rootworm resistant corn and other things. But that’s essentially the market strategy right now for handling unapproved events. We hope it’ll work.

The whole concept of the GM status of foods being a purchasing criteria is in itself fairly new. The first major recalls of products based on GM ingredients, of course, happened around the StarLink. There were billions of pounds of taco shells and other types of corn-based foods recalled and destroyed because they couldn’t verify that there was no StarLink in them. There had been a small amount of StarLink delivered to the mill that produced the corn flour that then produced the products, so there was a big recall. Recently, there have been reports of GM ingredients showing up in foods labeled organic, and the organic label automatically connotes non-GM. And so that is proving to be quite a difficulty for the organic foods market—to verify that there are no ingredients of any kind coming in from any source that came from GM crops. Whether they were raised with no chemicals or other things put on them or not, they still could be GM crops, and so this is going to be a major issue for the organic industry if the marketplace requests or demands that organic means non-GM.

One of the major efforts that we have right now is to work with producers and grain handlers to develop the work procedures and documentation templates and so forth, essentially to help them become ISO9000 certified or some derivation thereof. [ISO stands for International Sanctioning Organization.] ISO9000 is the internationally accepted quality documentation system. You see it on manufactured goods and other things: "ISO9000 certified." Most all European manufacturers are part of the ISO9000 system; it’s basically a method of keeping records and quality control documents such that you can trace your product all the way through whatever it is your system is, whether it’s welding steel together to make wagons or washing machines, or whether you’re making grain. It’s the thought process that lets you be able to document that you have followed your quality control process all the way through. With that documentation, you can save yourself a lot of testing and disputes if the customer accepts your documentation, you don’t have to be testing and other things at each point along the way. And there are some companies now that are actually marketing derivations of ISO9000. They may have commercial names but the objective is really the same: to allow the system to track products, all the way from seed to the consumers’ fork. I’m working right now with a large grain cooperative company to develop that for their company and there are others that are doing the same thing for producers. We’re gonna have to get with the program, so to speak, on this deal.

One of the things that I think is true now that maybe even many producers don’t recognize is that there’s no room anymore for anyone saying "I don’t know" or "No one told me." Every producer that plants crops is now basically presumed to know what the approval status it, what the logical and legitimate markets for their crops are going to be and what they aren’t. The argument that "No one told me"—it worked once, but there’s no more "I don’t knows." It’s presumed that everyone knows. And so the receptivity to these types of organized systems is just going up at a tremendous rate. We’ve had some extension meetings around the state about certification. Normally extension meetings don’t get full houses. These do. The market is starting to realize that they have to look at things differently, and in a more connected way than they ever did before.

Web intern: Megan Mowry

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