* As those who produce and store gene-altered crops
struggle to ease public
concerns and find a way to move forward, a new market is
beginning to emerge
for companies that can offer tools that tell consumers where
their food is coming
Starting next month, when the grain shipping season heats
up, more than 300
trucks filled with soybeans, corn and other crops will
rumble through the streets of
St. Louis each day, bringing their bounty to the ADM
Growmark grain elevator.
But this busy season will get busier, as more U.S. elevators
genetically modified grains from standard ones, a response
to growing concerns
about biotechnology, most notably in Europe. For elevators
like the ADM
Growmark facility here, which serves export markets, that
means the conga line of
trucks will deposit some grain at separate storage areas for
shipment on special
Segregating crops is causing uncertainty in the U.S. farm
and food industries. But
one thing is clear: The battle over biotech means more
companies will test their
products more often.
Although this uproar is becoming a burden for grain
elevators and a bane for gene
giants such as Monsanto Co., it's a boon for genetic testing
Some tests resemble over-the-counter pregnancy tests. Others
are akin to DNA
fingerprinting used by law enforcement. Their common goal:
to make sure
genetically altered grains aren't mixed with conventional ones.
Unless U.S. food companies segregate their produce and prove
they can offer
biotech-free grains, they run the risk of having food
shipments rejected, especially
at foreign ports.
The companies and trade associations along the U.S. food
chain warn that the
price of food will rise. They believe biotech foods are
safe, but they would rather
incur extra cost than consumers' wrath.
If test-makers have gauged the market and public sentiment
correctly, their tests
soon will be standard for the people who sell food, process
it, store it, ship it and
"There's no escaping the fact that many consumers are
genetically modified organisms," said Dwight Denham, global
manager for Strategic Diagnostics of Newark, Del., a maker
of test kits for
gene-altered crops. "It's an issue that food companies will
have to deal with."
Creators of the new tests claim they can overcome doubts
that widespread tests
are costly, time-consuming and aren't practical.
"Since 1996, the (agribusiness) industry and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture
have been saying there are no practical tests," said Robert
Oates, vice president
of marketing for Genetic ID, of Fairfield, Iowa, another
tester of biotech foods.
"There's been interest in the industry to make it seem like
testing is unreliable or
difficult or expensive."
The interest in testing is a direct result of a consumer
backlash against biotech
foods, especially in Europe, where people and politicians
are calling for labeling of
these foods or outright bans.
This opposition has reverberated through the food system --
to foreign grocers,
food companies, regulators and politicians -- as well as to
some other big U.S.
export markets, including Japan.
Domestic biotech critics are stepping up their efforts to
restrain the planting of
biotech crops or to promote labeling of foods with
ingredients. At the same time, however, U.S. farmers planted
a record number of
crops that are altered to tolerate some herbicides and to
How farmers will react next year is a mystery. But the food
industry is taking no
"There's a lot of desire for nongenetically enhanced grains
in Japan and Europe,"
said Carla Miller, a spokeswoman for Archer Daniels Midland,
the big grain
processor based in Decatur, Ill., which pays farmers extra
for some biotech-free
ADM recently told suppliers to segregate biotech crops,
often called genetically
"We'll be testing for (biotech) soybeans," Miller said. "We
will take GMOs. We
also are alerting farmers that there is a market for non-GMO
Members of Growmark, a seed co-operative in Bloomington,
Ill., are buying a new
kit to test for Roundup Ready soybeans, which are altered to
Co.'s Roundup herbicide. A farmer can use the test in his
field with a piece of a
soybean plant. A grain elevator can use the test with bean
The test's expense "will be very, very insignificant
compared to the cost of
segregating the beans," said Larry Keene, Growmark's
director of value-enhanced
Genetic testing in the seed business isn't new. For example,
International, the world's biggest seed corn company, has
fingerprinting of seeds and plants for nearly 20 years.
The tests determine whether unique traits from conventional
breeding show up
uniformly in the company's seeds. They also identify genetic
markers that could
help the company breed seeds that resist some diseases.
The tests also help protect against someone using Pioneer
seed illegally, said
Stephen Smith, germ plasm security director for the company
based in Des
Moines, Iowa. Pioneer used these tests as the basis for
suing other seed
companies, including a Monsanto subsidiary, last October.
Monsanto denies the
Companies or consumers, can order laboratory tests that can
gene-altered ingredients in foods ranging from infant
formulas to taco shells to
corn muffin mixes.
That's what the magazine Consumer Reports did recently,
laboratories to test the DNA -- the genetic blueprint -- of
foods for genetically
modified ingredients. To insure accuracy, the labs tested
multiple samples of
many products. The test for each sample cost $200 to $300
and took one to two
days, a Consumer Reports spokesman said.
Consumers and farmers don't have the time or money to
conduct such tests. And
until the biotech debate intensified, the food industry
hadn't had much need for
fast, flexible, cheap and on-site genetic tests.
Some farmers and grain elevators have segregated crops for
years, usually small
amounts of "designer grains" such as white corn for
tortillas or high-oil corn for
animal feed. They are created through conventional breeding
and account for
perhaps 5 percent of the U.S. corn crop.
"That's a lot different than a commodity-based system where
all soybeans have
been treated alike," said Jim Stitzlein, manager of market
Consolidated Grain & Barge Co. of Mandeville, La., which
owns 60 grain elevators.
His company is experimenting with a test kit from Strategic
checks Roundup Ready soybeans, the modified crop that
"It will give us something we hadn't had before," Stitzlein
said. "Testing will be
an added cost, but it also has value because it helps us
Companies worry about accidentally mixing gene-altered
grains with conventional
grains bound for Europe.
"If one truckload is a mistake, it spoils the whole (grain)
Many grain elevators have been separating genetically
engineered grains by
relying on the word of farmers, who certify that their crops
are conventional or
But farmers can make mistakes. They can forget which fields
crops; they can mix conventional and modified grains. In the
case of corn hybrids,
their conventional varieties can be cross-pollinated by
So grain elevators conduct quality-control tests, sending
batches of corn or
soybeans to laboratories to check their DNA for genetic
said the tests haven't always been reliable.
That's why companies such as Strategic Diagnostics and
Genetic ID pitch their
products as ways to increase testing convenience and
Whether in a lab or in the field, the tests must avoid or
minimize false positives
and false negatives. The former is an inaccurate reading
that says a gene-altered
substance is present; the latter is an erroneous reading
that a GMO hasn't been
The common themes in the food/crop testing business are
DNA analysis. Immunoassays rely on proteins called
antibodies that can be
engineered to react to a specific substance, producing a
yes-no result much as a
home pregnancy test that turns a certain color.
Strategic Diagnostics specializes in immunoassays. This
science has progressed to
the point where such tests can identify water pollutants,
By changing a test sample size, the immunoassay can be
adjusted to detect
smaller or larger percentages of a target substance. For
example, a grain elevator
could prepare a batch of 1,000 soybeans; if one bean was
Roundup Ready, the
test could come up positive for altered DNA.
Yes-no tests take a few minutes. Other immunoassays testing
the percentage of
gene-altered material in crop sample take several hours.
The DNA tests take longer, are more expensive and can't be
done in the field or
at a grain elevator. They quantify precise amounts of
genetic material. Unlike
immunoassays, they can detect multiple gene-altered
ingredients in a single grain
as well as in processed food.
Genetic ID focuses on DNA tests, which use chemicals to
extract modified DNA
from the natural DNA of a specific food. Multiple copies of
the DNA are made
through a process called polymerase chain reaction. Then the
sample is analyzed
and the different DNA is counted.
Right now, the pace of creating tests is moving slower than
the growing -- or
creating -- of gene-altered crops. The gene-testing
companies are glad to talk,
but it's rare for their clients to comment.
Monsanto won't discuss its use of technology even though it
has a crop-test
development and licensing deal with Strategic Diagnostics.
Terms were not
Strategic Diagnostics created the Roundup Ready soybean kit,
and a kit testing
Monsanto's insect-fighting corn is due Oct. 1.
Since 1995, Monsanto, other biotech companies and seed
producers have used
Strategic Diagnostics' technologies to measure the purity of
Clients include Delta & Pine Land Co. -- the largest U.S.
cotton seed company --
as well as AgrEvo, a giant crop protection company.
"I want farmers to know there is no mystery about this,"
said Kelly Cullum, vice
president of sales for Strategic Diagnostics.
She said her company is battling what she calls "the three
fallacies in agriculture:
There is no way to segregate crops; there is no quick test;
and the non-GMO
market is going to disappear."
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS
Organic Farming Research Foundation
Mark Lipson, Policy Program Director
ph: 831-426-4006 or -6606; fax: 831-426-6670
PO Box 440, Santa Cruz, CA 95061
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