Seed News

Syngenta's High-Amylase Enogen GM Corn Concerns Millers

Date Posted: February 3, 2011

Washington, D.C. ( -— Corn chips that could crumble in the bag. Cereal that's soggy before you can get it to your mouth.

The companies that mill corn into food products claim they could face problems like those should the government allow biotech giant Syngenta Seeds Inc. to commercialize a new variety of corn. The corn was engineered to cut the cost and greenhouse gas emissions of making ethanol.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to announce any day now whether he'll clear the biotech product for production. Corn millers are urging him not to do so yet, claiming the biotech kernels could accidentally get into the processors' grain supplies and ruin them, a fear Syngenta says is unfounded.

The Syngenta product is the latest of several thorny biotech and food safety issues that Vilsack has had to face. Last week, he approved the commercialization of a biotech variety of alfalfa over the complaints of the organic food industry, who fear it will contaminate nonbiotech seed and hay.

Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, will also decide soon whether farmers can resume production of biotech sugar beets.

Meanwhile, the demand for biotech seeds to increase crop yields has helped fuel growth at Syngenta, Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred, all of which have research centers in central Iowa. Pioneer, a DuPont unit based in Johnston, last month announced a $32 million expansion that would create 138 jobs.

Harm to milling process

The millers don't claim Syngenta's new variety of corn would harm someone who ate it — the Food and Drug Administration approved the corn for human consumption in 2007. But they say that contamination by as little as one kernel of Syngenta's corn in 10,000 kernels of conventional grain would be enough to harm the entire batch.

Syngenta's corn contains an enzyme, called amylase, that aids in breaking down the starch in the kernel. That would save ethanol plants in energy costs, but it would make the corn unsuitable for cooking into products like snack chips, breakfast cereal or the batter on corn dogs, processors say.

Most corn now grown by U.S. farmers is already genetically engineered to resist pests or to be immune to a herbicide, but that grain is OK for all uses, including food, livestock feed or ethanol.

"We love biotech. We don't question the safety. It's just a question of can we still make the food products we make now," if grain is contaminated, said Mary Waters, president of the North American Millers' Association, which represents corn processors such as Archer Daniels Midland Co.

Syngenta wants to have farmers start growing its ethanol-only crop in western parts of Kansas and Nebraska this fall. Eventually, the company wants to grow it in Iowa as well.

Syngenta says measures it will take will protect food processors: The corn won't be produced at any place where processors get their grain. Farmers who grow the Syngenta product, under contract with ethanol plants, will be paid an incentive to handle the corn properly and keep it out of conventional supplies.

There is little chance of "the grain getting into the wrong hands, the wrong processes," said Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart.

Conventional ethanol producers buy a liquid version of amylase, mix it with grain and water, and heat the resulting slurry so it can be fermented into alcohol. The Syngenta grain, called Enogen, would be mixed with conventional corn and fed into an ethanol plant. An ethanol producer in Kansas who experimented with the Syngenta product said less heat is needed in processing the corn, cutting energy usage.

The USDA approved commercialization of both the alfalfa and sugar beets only to have production of the crops blocked by judges who ruled that the department had inadequately considered the environmental and economic consequences of the crops. Both crops were engineered to be immune to the popular herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

The USDA hasn't been sued over Syngenta's corn, but critics of biotech crops say the industrial corn doesn't belong on the market either.

"The idea that you could keep that synthetic amylase out of the food corn is just preposterous," said Margaret Mellon, who follows agricultural biotechnology issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The millers have cited the experience a decade ago with StarLink, a biotech corn that got into food supplies, although it hadn't been approved for human consumption. Companies were required to recall contaminated corn products.

In a letter to Vilsack this week, the North American Millers' Association said data that the group had seen only recently had raised new concerns about the corn.

In a separate letter to Vilsack, Syngenta offered to set up an advisory council made up of industry and USDA representatives to monitor the crop's introduction. The council would be provided with locations of the cornfields.

The processors' group could have had the data much earlier if it had agreed to keep it confidential, said Syngenta's Minehart.

Pioneer, a rival of Syngenta, has not developed a similar product. Pioneer has instead focused on helping ethanol producers by using conventional breeding to increase the starch content of its corn hybrids.

more SEED NEWS...