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Farmers Angry in Wake of StarLink Recall
Farmers Cite Scarce Data in Corn Mixing

By BARNABY J. FEDER
New York Times, October 17, 2000

Some farmers who planted a variety of bioengineered corn unapproved for
human consumption say they were not adequately warned about restrictions on
how it was to be planted, stored and sold, despite suppliers' claims to
have done so.

Farmers in several Midwestern states have said they were not told that the
corn, known as StarLink, must be kept separate from other crops until
reports emerged last month that it had been detected in a brand of taco
shells. And others said that while they were told last spring that the corn
had not been approved by federal regulators for human consumption, they
were also told that they need not worry because approval was expected shortly.

Like a number of other genetically engineered crops, StarLink has been
altered with a bacterial gene to make a protein that kills the corn borer
caterpillar. But unlike the others, StarLink was limited to use in animal
feed and industrial products pending further testing because the
Environmental Protection Agency could not rule out a link between the
StarLink protein and food allergies.

"The farmers calling in, to a man, said they had never been told it wasn't
fit for human consumption," said Kenneth Root, host of "Agritalk," a
program carried on many rural radio stations. Callers also questioned how
widely publicized the recommended planting restrictions for the crop had been.

StarLink's inventor, Aventis Crop-Science, a subsidiary of Aventis S.A. of
France, and the seed companies that sold StarLink varieties say they told
farmers that the corn had not been approved for food use and that they
should keep a 660- foot buffer strip to prevent StarLink from spreading its
genes to other corn during pollination.

Senior officials of Aventis and the Garst Seed Company, the largest
StarLink vendor, did not respond yesterday to repeated requests for comment
on the farmers' assertions of insufficient warning and on the companies'
efforts to contain the StarLink crops.

Last week, food and grain industry officials working to track down the
StarLink corn said millions of bushels of possibly tainted grain might have
found their way into food production channels.

Just what farmers knew and when they knew it could end up playing a role in
lawsuits growing out of the affair, according to lawyers who handle
agriculture cases. Aventis and the seed companies might have a hard time
fending off liability for the expenses of farmers, grain elevators, millers
and food companies in sorting out the mess if they did not do enough to
head off foreseeable risks that mixing would occur.

Because farmers have widely varying levels of sophistication in
record-keeping and attention to documentation, it takes more than a policy
set at some distant corporate headquarters to control the rollout of new
technology. Seed sales may be overseen by full-time seed company managers,
but the distribution often relies on farmer representatives selling to
neighbors. How rigorously corporate policies are pushed down the network
can vary.

"I missed the meeting where they talked about restrictions," Rollin Smith,
a farmer in Columbus Junction, Iowa, who is also a local distributor for
Garst, said in an interview. Mr. Smith was identified by Keith Forbes, who
owns a local grain elevator, as one of at least two sources of StarLink
corn that contaminated the 700,000 bushels in Mr. Forbes's storage bins.
Mr. Forbes said he believed that Mr. Smith was unaware of any problems that
might arise from bringing the corn in.

"I'll be damned if we know what to do with it," he said.

So far, Aventis has said it will buy segregated StarLink crops from farmers
and elevators at a premium of 25 cents a bushel, though there is confusion
over the price on which that will be based. Farmers say the company has
refused to buy the far larger quantities of corn that may have been mixed
with StarLink strains.

"You have to wonder what people assumed would happen," said Neil D.
Hamilton, an agricultural law expert at Drake University in Des Moines.

Indeed, even the full-court press in the last few weeks by Aventis and
Garst to reach farmers may not have brought all of those involved up to date.

"Some of these guys are going 6 a.m. to midnight on the harvest," said
Steven Cummings, grain operations manager at Oakville Feed and Grain in
Oakville, Iowa. "They probably haven't even had time to read their mail."

No one knows yet whether just a small number or many hundreds have mixed
harvested StarLink corn with the rest of their crop in storage bins or have
shipped it to grain elevators, which could vastly complicate the effort to
isolate the crop. But a number of farmers have begun to complain publicly.

"We never found out until two weeks ago," said Fred Rosenberger, who grew
40 acres of StarLink corn in Rineyville, Ky., this year. Mr. Rosenberger
said that because he stored the corn before realizing that it should be
segregated, some 8,000 bushels of StarLink corn were mixed in with about
42,000 bushels of other varieties. Mr. Rosenberger said that some
neighbors, whom he declined to name, had unwittingly shipped it to local
elevators.

Duane Adams, who farms 1,500 acres in Cosmos, Minn., and is vice president
of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said that none of the papers
that came with StarLink seed he purchased from Garst last spring carried a
warning about the crop's limited use or the notice that it should be
planted at least 660 feet from any other corn.

Mr. Adams said he had not harvested his StarLink crop or the corn within
the buffer zone yet and expected Aventis to buy it from him when he does.
He said that he was surprised to hear in recent conversations with a Garst
district manager that both Garst and Aventis sent out "regular letters"
regarding the status of the crop.

"I guess I fell through the cracks," he said, noting that his purchase had
been relatively small.

The Garst district manager, Duane Hickler, said he believed Mr. Adams's
account, but was surprised to hear it because there had been numerous
mailings.

The big elevator operators and millers say they have been testing for
StarLink in recent weeks and have found little or none of it coming in.
Farmers that try to sell them contaminated loads are generally directed to
find cattle feedlots or ethanol producers.

The effort to avoid further problems continues to ripple through the farm
economy. ConAgra said yesterday that it did not know when it would reopen
its large mill in Atcheson, Kan., which it closed last Wednesday. Conagra
received information from a source it would not identify that the plant
might have been contaminated by StarLink, according to Karen Savinski, a
spokeswoman.

"We are still awaiting test results, and we are cleaning the plant," Ms.
Savinski said.

One looming problem for farmers with affected corn is that many have
contracts to deliver corn to elevators or processors that they can no
longer fill with the crops they harvested. Mr. Rosenberger, for instance,
said he would have to buy 3,000 bushels of corn on the open market to
fulfill a contract with Owensboro Grain. With corn prices rising,
uncertainty about how they will fill their obligations or what Aventis will
pay for their crop is agonizing to many.

"I'm sick of it," Mr. Smith said, vowing to never plant another Aventis
product. Not that StarLink itself is likely to be an option any time soon.
Aventis last week withdrew its registration with the E.P.A., ending any
effort to sell the crop for any use. An E.P.A. official said that unless
Aventis or someone else submitted new information, the question of whether
StarLink ever posed a health risk would not be pursued.

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