Millers fear StarLink sequel in corn amylase

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — A conflict over a petition to deregulate the first corn trait with a bioengineered output trait came to a head this week with the North American Millers’ Association asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture not to take action on the petition.

At issue was a petition by Syngenta Seeds, Inc., Minnetonka, Minn., to deregulate Alpha Amylase Corn Event 3272, known as corn amylase. The corn, which contains the enzyme amylase, is expected to be valuable to the ethanol industry because it lowers the cost of converting corn starch into ethanol.

The milling industry concern first emerged following an April 2010 meeting with Syngenta executives. While the corn is not intended to enter the U.S. food supply, the millers were seeking assurances that the adventitious presence of corn amylase would not adversely affect food quality.

According to NAMA, a presentation by Syngenta at the meeting indicated a significant negative impact on food product quality and performance at a very low presence (one kernel in 10,000).

“Syngenta did not share any documents or data with us after the meeting,” NAMA said in a June 26 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack. “We offered that if our interpretation of the data was in error, we would correct it when presented with additional information. We shared these concerns with Undersecretary Avalos in a May meeting, with you in a June letter, with Deputy Undersecretary Wright in a July meeting and with a larger group of stakeholders in an August meeting sponsored by U.S.D.A.”

The millers noted that data was not provided to NAMA when requested at a subsequent meeting convened in December by Ann Wright as Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs.

“Our scientists were not able to resolve their concerns over the impact on functionality since no scientific data were available for review,” NAMA said.

R. Don Sullins, vice-president of technical service at ADM Milling Co., and a member of the NAMA technical committee, said the issue is a significant one for the milling industry, not because it has an impact on the milling process but on the product millers ship to their customers.

“We love biotech, but they have asked the U.S.D.A. to deregulate this event, meaning they can plant it anywhere,” he said. “If it is regulated, they have to account for every seed that is planted or harvested. Our current position is that we don’t want it deregulated until enough scientific data have been developed to assure that milled corn and finished products will not be adversely affected by the adventitious presence of C.A. event 3272.”

The corn milling industry’s sensitivity over the issue is heightened by memories of StarLink, a bioengineered corn variety found in small levels in the food supply even though it had not been approved for food use. Millers had to bear the expense of testing corn for the presence of StarLink for several years.

Mr. Sullins said food safety is not a concern with corn amylase. Instead, the milling industry is concerned tortilla, corn chip and breakfast cereal manufacturers will experience problems if corn amylase is present in even small amounts.

He expressed concern the corn chip manufacturing process could present “perfect conditions for (corn amylase) enzyme to start breaking down the corn starch.”

“They won’t be able to make corn chips,” he said.

He also expressed concern about makers of breading and batters.

“Will it change the viscosity?” he asked. “We need to see the data.”

An executive from a major snack foods company affirmed Mr. Sullins concerns.

“I’m not against output traits, but show us data that this will not hurt our output,” the executive said. “The entire corn dry milling industry and food industry is concerned, not because it’s a g.m.o.

“If the data Syngenta is presenting is correct, that at very low levels of admixture, it would render the corn not usable then we have a major problem.

“The strategy Syngenta has presented is that they will use isolation techniques in the country. How many times have we seen that not work? It wasn’t just StarLink. There have been pharma examples as well.

“We’re concerned. I’m not saying it’s going to be a failure, but we need evidence.”

Adding to the drama of the confrontation over corn amylase were documents from Syngenta posted recently on the web site of U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The documents featured analysis by Will J. Duensing, a retired corn miller who had been very active in milling industry affairs for several years.

“C.A. (corn amylase) is unlikely to have any measureable effect on most corn dry milling processes and milled product applications,” Mr. Duensing said in a document dated October 2010 but posted only on Jan. 20. “The C.A. enzyme is designed to work most efficiently and effectively under a very specific range of temperature, moisture and pH conditions. The conditions that are prevalent in dry milling and most product applications are not favorable to enzyme activity.”

NAMA countered though, that a brief review of the documents shows “that they confirm our food scientists concerns on functionality.”

Paul Minehart, head of corporate communications for Syngenta North America, said the company has developed a system designed to be sure corn amylase does not get into food channels.

“Syngenta has confidence in this system,” he said. “This corn will be sold in a contracted closed production system. It is a small acre crop. It is meant specifically to be contracted with growers who will sell to a specific ethanol plant.  It is not unusual in the industry. It works. This one takes it to another level.”

Lloyd W. Rooney, a scientist with Texas A.&M. University at College Station, Texas, who also has been engaged by Syngenta to study corn amylase declined to respond to questions, citing a confidentiality agreement with the seed company.

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, who approved the deregulation of roundup ready alfalfa, was asked about corn amylase in a news conference this week. The secretary said he was aware of the controversy surrounding the corn trait. He said the approval of alfalfa did not automatically mean a sugar beet or corn approval would follow.

“Each crop is different and the circumstances and the determination of whether a plant-pest risk exists or not may be different,” he said. “In the area of sugar beets, this is not a circumstance where we are making a final decision because we are in the process of doing something the court has ordered us to do, and we are still sort of in the middle of litigation, so it is a completely different fact pattern.

“The corn amylase issue is also different because it is not a situation where it is farmer versus farmer or producer versus producer. It is really one industry having concerns about the impact that this will have on its industry, its two industries sort of battling with each other, so these things are complicated.  They’re complicated.”

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