GMO-ethanol corn contamination raises concerns about another “StarLink” disaster
Enogen, a genetically modified corn for ethanol production, has contaminated non-GMO white corn grown in Nebraska that is used to make flour for tortillas and other products.
Contaminated farmers’ corn
According to Derek Rovey, owner of Rovey Specialty Grains, Inland, Nebraska, a few of his contract farmers who grow non-GMO white corn had their crops contaminated by Enogen corn.
“We’ve had some growers who’ve had some problems (with Enogen). Their corn was right next to Enogen fields,” says Rovey.
Enogen’s GMO trait was detected in the white corn using GMO strip tests, says Rovey.
He also says that flour made using his company’s white corn tested positive for Enogen last summer.
Enogen GMO corn can contaminate food corn through cross pollination in the field or improper segregation during grain handling.
B.J. Katzberg, a corn seed dealer for Pioneer Hi-Bred, says one of his customer farmers had to abandon 25,000 bushels of corn due to Enogen contamination. He also knows of other farmers who’ve had Enogen contamination of their non-GMO white corn including one who had to remove 600 feet of his cornfield and sell it to an ethanol plant.
Farmers whose white corn crops are GMO contaminated face market rejection and lost income, as they have to sell their corn to a cheaper market such as those for animal feed or, ironically, ethanol.
Jim Clark, owner of Clark Specialty Grains in Gothenberg, Nebraska, also knows of farmers who’ve had contamination problems with Enogen corn.
“A farmer has a contract, delivers the corn and Enogen is detected; the corn must be sold for feed. It’s a nightmare,” he says.
“Will ruin corn for milling”
Enogen is genetically engineered with an enzyme that converts starches in corn to sugars, the first step in the process of making corn ethanol. The problem is that Enogen could mix with corn grown for food and break down its starches and ruin the corn for processing, which would lead to crumbly corn chips and soggy cereals.
It would only take one kernel of Enogen corn mixed with 10,000 kernels of food corn to ruin the food processing abilities of food corn, according to the North American Millers Association.
In a 2013 article in The Organic & Non-GMO Report, Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain, predicted problems with Enogen.
“This will ruin corn for milling,” says Clarkson, whose company 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.”
When asked about contamination problems experienced by the Nebraska farmers, Syngenta claimed in a statement that it “has never had a verified incident.” The company said it has been committed to provide Enogen technology in a way that “respects other uses of the crop and other corn growers” and works “proactively with growers and industry to avoid potential conflicts.” Syngenta said Enogen is grown in a closed-loop system with contracted growers that follow a comprehensive stewardship program to prevent commingling. For example, Syngenta developed a purple tracer that offers growers a visual way to ensure grain is properly segregated from planting to delivery.
Ron Lowery, an expert in crop nutrition and management, says Syngenta is working to be good stewards of Enogen corn. But he also says that the GMO corn “has negative possibilities for non-GMO and organic corn growers and for the baking and milling industry.”
Those negative possibilities are likely to increase as production of both white non-GMO corn and Enogen corn increase in Nebraska.
“There are a lot of ethanol plants and lots of white corn. And those don’t mix,” says Joel Starr, an organic farmer in Hastings, Nebraska. “That equals a trainwreck.”
Connection to bad masa problem in California?
Several people also suspect that Enogen GMO corn may be linked to problems with masa, a dough made from cooked corn to make tortillas and other products, in California. According to media reports, scores of people reported problems with masa purchased at Amapola Market, a Hispanic grocery chain in Los Angeles. They said the tamales they made from the masa—a Christmas tradition for Hispanic families—were gooey, fell apart, and even made some people sick.
Amapola vice president Juan Galván says the bad masa affected thousands of people. The problem was traced to a shipment of 120,000 pounds of white corn delivered to Amapola right before Christmas.
“The starch content is obviously different in this corn,” Galván says. “Tamales don’t bind. When you make the product, it falls apart.”
This is the kind of effect that Enogen corn would have on food corn. In fact, Rovey says the same thing happened with white corn flour sold to one of his retail California customers last summer though on a much smaller scale than the Amapola incident.
“It was a similar type of product; flour to make tamales,” he says. “We tested it and it came back with the Enogen trait.”
As a result, Rovey believes Enogen corn also caused Amapola’s masa problem though he says: “I can’t say that for a fact.”
Katzberg is also convinced Enogen ruined Amapola’s masa. “Yes, it is the problem. The enzyme breaks down the starch and disallows the product to cook through so the tamales never finished.”
However, testing has not been conducted to confirm the presence of the Enogen trait in Amapola’s masa.
Enogen reminds Clark of StarLink, a GMO corn, which was approved for feed use only, but was later found in 300 food products, leading to a multi-million dollar food recall, along with multiple lawsuits in the early 2000s.
“It has a flavor of Starlink,” Clark says. “We were told it wasn’t going to get into food, but it did.”