Is Ethanol GMO Corn a Threat to Non-GMO Corn?
As a supplier of non-GMO and organic grains, Lynn Clarkson has enough challenges keeping his corn and soybeans from being contaminated by genetically modified crops. But Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain, says a new GMO corn from Syngenta adds a whole new set of threats to his business, farmers, and customers—and he is angry. “I think it is potentially the most market disruptive seed being commercialized,” he says.
“Contamination from Enogen would be devastating”
Clarkson is talking about Enogen, a corn developed by Syngenta to aid in the production of ethanol. Enogen is genetically engineered to contain high levels of a heat-resistant enzyme that breaks down starches in corn into sugars, the first step in the conversion of corn to ethanol.
Syngenta developed Enogen to tap into the growing demand for ethanol; about 40% of US corn production goes to make ethanol.
The problem is that Enogen could mix with corn grown for food and break down its starches, which would lead to crumbly corn chips and soggy cereals and corn bread.
“This will ruin corn for milling,” says Clarkson, who sells non-GMO and organic corn to food processors and millers. “The ethanol industry is happy but other industries are seriously undermined by this corn.”
“Getting contamination from Enogen in corn for the tortilla industry would be devastating,” said Jerry Strissel, a corn breeder who worked at Syngenta for 20 years and who now breeds non-GMO corn for food use.
“Bailing wire and duct tape” GMO regulations
Enogen was approved for commercial production in 2011 by the US Department of Agriculture despite opposition from the North American Millers Association (NAMA), which represents 43 major food companies including General Mills and ConAgra Mills.
Clarkson agreed with NAMA. “I think the USDA should have considered the market disruption that could be caused and denied approval.”
At a biotechnology conference in Iowa in 2011, Jim Bair, NAMA vice president, criticized the US government’s regulations of GM crops, saying they had been “cobbled together with bailing wire and duct tape.”
Furthermore, the Center for Food Safety said the enzyme found in the GM corn was not assessed for potential negative effects on human health and the environment.
The European Union has rejected Syngenta’s application to market Enogen corn. The European Food Safety Authority said Syngenta failed to provide sufficient information to ensure that the seeds were safe.
“Watching the situation closely”
According to Jack Bernens, who heads Enogen marketing and stakeholder relations at Syngenta, the Enogen corn is being produced in a “closed production” system.
“Growers must adhere to a robust production system with specific stewardship requirements that were designed to minimize the potential for cross pollination at full adoption of Enogen corn,” Bernens says.
The closed production system comprises contracting farmers to grow Enogen and training them in stewardship practices to minimize contamination, traceability of all grain, fields, bins, and trucks, and delivery to ethanol plants that are in different regions than food processing facilities, among others. Syngenta provides both GMO “strip” and PCR tests to detect Enogen.
Syngenta has also established an Enogen Advisory Council, which includes farmers, and individuals from NAMA and farm and food organizations to discuss stewardship issues and provide updates on Enogen.
Bair says his organization “takes Syngenta at its word” that its closed production system will work but says “we are watching the situation closely.”
One kernel in 10,000 could ruin corn processing
But industry observers point to past GMO contamination incidents—such as StarLink corn in 2000 or Liberty Link Rice in 2006, which caused million dollar losses in food recalls and lost export markets—to show that preventing GMO crops from going where they shouldn’t is difficult, if not impossible.
“Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip,” said Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
It would only take one kernel of Enogen GM corn mixed with 10,000 kernels of food corn to ruin the food processing abilities of food corn, according to NAMA.
“Enogen’s contamination of other corns ruins those corns for making grits for corn flakes at levels of 0.01% and for making tortillas and tortilla chips, at 0.25%,” Clarkson says.
He also says Syngenta’s recommended buffer of 30 feet separating Enogen corn and conventional corn is inadequate. “Are you joking? I would need a mile, certainly a half mile contamination zone.”
Clarkson isn’t alone in his contamination fears. “I definitely share concerns regarding the possible commingling or cross-contamination to our food-grade varieties,” says Rodrigo Ariceaga, CEO of Minsa, a leading producer of corn masa flour.
If a food company were to find Enogen corn mixed with food corn, Clarkson predicts they would sue. “I would expect the suit to be against Syngenta and perhaps the USDA and/or the FDA,” he says.
As acreage increases so does likelihood of contamination
As acreage of Enogen corn increases so does the threat that the GM corn will contaminate food corn.
According to Clarkson, 5,000 acres of Enogen was grown in Kansas and Nebraska in 2012. That increased to 60,000 acres this year with many of those acres in Iowa. So far, 11 ethanol plants in those three states have signed agreements to use Enogen.
Syngenta aims to have Enogen corn grown on 2.5 million acres, which would produce four billion bushels of the GM corn.
Strissel sees potential problems. “You get to a point where it could be hard to manage it because of the magnitude of the system,” he says. “The potential for problems grow as the acreage increases. You get up to 2.5 million acres and that’s a whole different regulation than 5,000 acres.”
“Liberty to grow and liberty to not be contaminated”
Clarkson says increasing acreage of Enogen will infringe on farmers’ rights to grow food corn, making it a property rights issue. “Farmers should have the liberty to grow and the liberty to not be contaminated. Syngenta’s 2.5 million acres will cut a large swath across the Midwest, determining the market fate of many more acres than their 2.5 million. This will make it impossible for farmers in Enogen production areas to market corn to starch markets; markets that do not want an enzyme eating away their starch.”
Clarkson has already seen a problem. One of his contract farmers in Nebraska discovered that Enogen was being grown in his area. The farmer called Syngenta to find out where the GM corn was being grown but the biotech company refused to say. “They are not being responsible to the farm community,” Clarkson said.
According to Bernens, Syngenta can’t disclose specific grower information due to privacy requirements. But he did say: “The two fields were about 10 miles apart, which is well beyond any published distance recommendations for pollen isolation.”
He also said Syngenta is committed to open communication and working with companies like Clarkson’s to “determine mutual steps that can be taken to alleviate concerns about cross pollination.”
“They must be confident they can handle this, but they haven’t convinced the rest of the world they can do this,” Strissel says.
Clarkson isn’t reassured. “I have no confidence that Syngenta will be able to contain its GMO trait.”
Ken is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.