WASHINGTON - A major biotechnology company says it will restrict sales next year of a type of gene-altered corn and delay commercialization of another variety until 2002 to avoid further disruptions in U.S. grain exports.
The moves announced Monday by the Monsanto Co. are meant to avoid repeating the problems encountered this fall when biotech corn developed by one of its competitors, Aventis CropScience, appeared in the food supply without being approved for human consumption.
U.S. corn sales to Japan and other export markets have fallen sharply this fall since the discovery of the Aventis corn, known as StarLink, in taco shells.
"We can't stop the development of this technology, but we are going to use restraint," said Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsanto's president and chief executive officer.
Federal officials have not confirmed any illness relating to the corn although they have received nearly three dozen complaints since reports about the StarLink corn first surfaced in September. The government is investigating 10 cases in which people reported probable allergic reactions to something they ate.
The Environmental Protection Agency was holding a public meeting Tuesday on a request by Aventis to approve StarLink temporarily for food use to avoid further food recalls.
StarLink is the only genetically engineered crop not approved for human consumption. Federal regulators say there is little if any health risk from StarLink, although there are still unresolved questions about its potential to cause allergic reactions.
A variety of corn developed by Monsanto to be resistant to the company's popular Roundup weedkiller will be distributed for sale next year only to farmers in areas where grain is seldom sold for export, Verfaillie said. The corn is approved for food use in both the United States and Japan but not in Europe. Traces of the corn were found this fall in British-made tortilla chips.
The second Monsanto corn variety, which won't be put on the market until 2002, is toxic to an insect pest, the corn rootworm. It is yet to be approved in either Japan or Europe.
The actions announced Monday don't affect Monsanto's most popular gene-altered crops, which include Roundup-resistant soybeans and cotton and a variety of corn that is toxic to another pest, the European corn borer.
A representative of the National Corn Growers Association, which is especially concerned about losing sales to Japan, praised Monsanto's moves.
"We could not jeopardize our biggest corn market by supporting the commercialization" of a corn variety that was not approved by that country, said Susan Keith, senior director of public policy for the growers group.
Critics both inside and outside the biotech industry say StarLink, the only gene-altered crop not allowed in food, never should have been put on the market without being approved for human consumption.
StarLink was approved only for animal feed or industrial use because of unresolved questions about its potential to cause allergic reactions.
Aventis disclosed last week that a special protein in the StarLink corn has also been found in a variety of corn sold by Garst Seed Co.
Aventis officials, who say they don't know how the protein, known as Cry9C, got in the Garst corn, met privately Monday with representatives from the Agriculture Department and other seed companies to discuss the problem.
Monsanto's surveys of farmers indicate that sales of its biotech seeds could increase by 16 percent even as other polling by the company indicates that consumer confidence in gene-altered crops is slipping, Verfaillie said.
"The farmers want this technology. If they had a free choice they would use it on the great majority of acres," he said.
USDA's biotechnology site: http://www.usda.gov/agencies/biotech/index.html
Monsanto explanation: http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/media/speeches/new-pledge-speech.ht ml