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Tortilla Chips Going Biotech as Limits Change on Seeds

Washington, D.C. - Tortilla chips are going biotech.

White corn, the variety that's milled into chips, taco shells and tortillas, has for years been free of genetic engineering. Millers and companies such as snack-food giant Frito-Lay bought only conventional, biotech-free varieties of the specialty corn from farmers.

But that's changing. Farmers in Iowa, Nebraska and other states started growing a small amount of genetically modified white corn this year after word came down from processors they would start accepting it.

"Our domestic millers have always been in favor of it," said Todd Gerdes, specialty grains manager for Aurora Cooperative, which buys white corn at three of its locations in Nebraska. The corn is sold to domestic mills and for export. "What they've always wanted to do is to make sure that they didn't accept (biotech versions) and drive away their customers."

"They've come to a comfort level where they can convince their customers it's OK."

That change of heart has opened a new business for Pioneer Hi-Bred, which offered three white varieties of its Herculex corn for the first time this year and plans to bring out three more in 2009. About 2 percent of Pioneer's white corn seed this year was genetically modified.

Virtually all of the corn grown in Iowa and nationwide is of yellow varieties and used for livestock feed, ethanol and for sweeteners and other food uses. Some 80 percent of the yellow corn seed planted this year was genetically engineered to make the plants toxic to insect pests or immune to a popular weed killer, or both.

Biotech varieties have been in the market for more than a decade, and there were even some versions in white corn in the 1990s. But industry officials said millers got spooked by the controversies that initially surrounded biotech crops, including the StarLink episode in 2000.

StarLink, a variety of biotech corn produced by a Pioneer rival, was found in taco shells and other food products without having been approved for food use.

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