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November 26, 2000


Starlink, Thanksgiving, FAO Inventory


I would like to know if anyone can direct me to the kit to detect
StarLink insecticidal protein in corn flour, so that we can purchase it.
The purpose is to do some lab exercises with students in our class
"Recombinant DNA technology in foods".
Thank you very much.

Mertxe de Renobales
Bioquímica y Biología Molecular
Facultad de Farmacia
Univ. País Vasco
E-01006 Vitoria-Gasteiz


Tacogate: There Is Barely A Kernel of Truth

By Thomas Hoban
Washington Post
Sunday, November 26, 2000; Page B02

It's been amazing to watch the chain of events unfolding since StarLink, a
genetically modified variety of corn used in animal feed but not yet
approved for human consumption, was found in American-made taco shells.
Domestically, thousands of the shells have been stripped from store
shelves in a recall that was widened last week to include more than 1.4
million pounds of corn flour and other baking ingredients. Overseas, the
Japanese government has reported with alarm that the corn has been found
in imported American products.

With all the hue and cry, you'd think a dangerous, if not deadly,
ingredient had been introduced into the U.S. and international food
supply. But what's the startling discovery the alarm-raisers have made?
Hold onto your seats, folks: Our corn, it seems, has been contaminated

For all its ominous overtones, the StarLink incident has very little to do
with science and safety. Instead, it's the latest skirmish in an ongoing
conflict between environmental groups and the biotechnology industry.
Mediated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has
questionable credentials for regulating food safety, it has frightened
consumers, placed undue burdens on farmers and caused a needless, and
ultimately irresponsible, uproar.

StarLink, developed by the French-based drug company Aventis, is really no
different from other corn, except for the addition of a gene that produces
an insect-fighting protein. Corn had already been dramatically modified
from the "natural" plant originally found in the wild. Those ancient ears
of corn were the size of your little finger and looked more like grass
than modern yellow corn. Over the ages, crossbreeding and, more recently,
forced mutation, has produced the ear of corn we eat today. StarLink, with
its one gene added to the approximately 60,000 in this modern ear,
represents a very modest, precise change by comparison.

StarLink has not been approved for human consumption because of concern
that its new protein may cause human allergies. Food allergy specialists
have questioned this, pointing out that it's virtually impossible for
anyone to have an existing allergy to a protein that would be completely
new to the human diet, and that the corn, planted on only 1 percent of
U.S. corn acreage, would be present in food products at extremely low
levels. Steve Taylor, head of the University of Nebraska's department of
food science and technology and a leading expert on food allergens,
believes "there is virtually no risk associated with the ingestion of
StarLink corn in this situation."

But fear of allergenicity is the reason the EPA has limited StarLink to
use as animal feed. It has become the crux of the battle over StarLink,
and the justification for the scare campaign that led to the recent
product recalls. Yet it's unclear why the EPA, rather than the Food and
Drug Administration, is calling the shots on StarLink's allergy-causing

The original discovery of StarLink corn in taco shells produced by Kraft
Foods was no accident. It was the result of a fishing expedition by a
coalition of environmental groups, led by Greenpeace and Friends of the
Earth, that aim to discredit the regulatory system and damage consumer
confidence in the biotech industry. These groups, which oppose most modern
agricultural methods, hired a testing company to analyze more than two
dozen processed foods specifically for traces of StarLink. The taco shells
were the only place where they found what they were looking for.

These protest groups have been waging an aggressive fear campaign against
multinational biotechnology companies for years--first in Europe, now in
North America. Their main strategy for preventing biotechnology from
reaching the market is to attack the food industry. They call for consumer
boycotts of food companies and supermarkets. But these rarely materialize
because, as research shows, most Americans support new developments in
science and technology.

I've studied the social impact of biotechnology for more than a decade. My
own research and that of others has documented that between two-thirds and
three-quarters of U.S. consumers support agricultural biotechnology and
welcome its benefits, especially the reduced use of pesticides. This
support was still evident in a survey I conducted right after the StarLink
news broke. In it, 67 percent of consumers said they would continue to
consume biotech products that had been engineered to resist insects, and
only 3 percent said biotechnology was their most serious concern about
food safety.

It's fair to say that Aventis should not have proceeded to market its corn
without being sure it could be kept separate from approved varieties. This
is, in fact, extremely difficult to guarantee. Our modern farm and food
system is designed to be efficient and to keep food costs low, not to keep
individual varieties of crops strictly segregated. A couple of years ago,
in fact, Aventis was reportedly warned not to make a biotech soybean
commercially available because farmers knew it would be impossible to keep
it out of the export market, for which it had not been approved.

But the company clearly wanted to establish a presence in the fiercely
competitive market for agricultural biotechnology. Other companies have
already received full approvals for biotech seeds, including corn not very
different from StarLink, that are being widely used by North American

Perhaps the most troublesome and confusing aspect of the controversy is
the government role. Like many others involved in biotechnology, I was
concerned to learn that it was the EPA, not the FDA, that granted StarLink
partial approval while expressing doubts about its allergenic potential.
The agency best equipped to deal with food allergens is clearly the FDA,
which has a long track record in the area. Yet the EPA asserted regulatory
control under the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which expanded
EPA's authority over pesticides. Because StarLink resists insects, the
agency claimed jurisdiction with an interesting interpretation--treating a
plant not as a plant, but as a pesticide.

The EPA may hope to be a big player in the biotech arena, but most experts
agree it should not be regulating food safety. The EPA has plenty to do
regulating the ecological impact of bioengineered plants, which is the
greatest biotechnology-related concern of most scientists. It should
concentrate its efforts on that and resist power grabs of the StarLink
variety. Appropriately, the agency has recently come under increasing
criticism from the food, agriculture and scientific communities for its
handling of the StarLink episode and for introducing interagency politics
into the issue.

Biotechnology represents a powerful set of tools that will have a
significant impact on society over the next century. New biotechnology
products provide important benefits, including reduced use of chemical
pesticides and enhanced vitamin and iron content that will help prevent
childhood blindness and other problems in developing countries.

Because it is so powerful, however, society should be able to control this
new technology. Biotech crops do undergo extensive safety and nutrition
testing, and biotechnology has been shown to be as safe or safer than
traditional breeding practices, which have been used for decades without
any formal testing or regulation. In an interview last January, FDA
Commissioner Jane Henney said her agency has seen "no evidence that the
bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or
are in any way less safe than crops produced through traditional breeding."

The main lesson of StarLink is that no new agricultural product should be
made commercially available until it has received approval for human
consumption. All parties now agree to this, so there's hope we won't see
this kind of problem again. But while companies are expected to be
responsible, the activist groups that oppose them and the government
agencies that regulate them also need to act responsibly. It's not
reasonable to demand "zero risk" from any technology, nor to hold
biotechnology to unreasonably high standards.

We must also be careful not to impose higher costs on all consumers.
Opponents who call for mandatory labeling of all foods with biotech
ingredients do so mainly as a means of launching a further attack on the
industry. The FDA already requires nutritional and health labeling, and
research has shown that a simple statement that a food "contains
genetically modified ingredients" would serve chiefly to confuse and alarm

The casualties in the war between the biotechnology industry and its
opponents are farmers, food companies and consumers. Most of us have
enough daily concerns without being frightened into thinking the food
we're eating is dangerous. Food companies and farmers face serious threats
from low profit margins, industry consolidation and global competition.
With all this to worry about, a scare like StarLink is the last thing that
any of us needs.

Thomas Hoban, a professor of food science and sociology at North Carolina
State University, chairs a nationwide university task force on educating
consumers about biotechnology.

Be Thankful for Biotechnology

Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)
November 22, 2000

I'm a farmer, and I'll be joining with my fellow Americans as we count our
blessings this Thanksgiving. As we enjoy the holiday repast, I ask us all
to consider where we would be without advances in agriculture.

Our traditions say the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving with a
bountiful meal. But the reality was an unrelenting struggle to produce
food. Settlers often found their crops destroyed by the elements or pests.
They owed their sustenance to corn from Native Americans.

Today, the corn we use is dramatically different because of biotechnology.
Hybrid corn has helped farmers quadruple production compared with their
grandfathers' yields in the 1930s. This basic form of biotechnology has
evolved to include tools with enormous potential to produce more
nutritious foods for consumers, plentiful crops for people in developing
countries and a healthier environment worldwide.

Biotechnology could lead to fruits and vegetables that help to prevent
certain forms of cancer and heart disease by delivering more vitamins and
minerals. Biotechnology cooking oils could contain fewer saturated fats.
Potatoes produced through biotechnology could absorb less oil during
frying, and produce made with biotechnology could taste better and last
longer. I am using biotechnology to produce better crops while reducing
the strain on the environment since biotechnology allows use of more
benign pesticides at lower rates. Traditional agriculture consumes large
quantities of topsoil and water, but biotechnology crops could help to
conserve those resources by absorbing more nutrients from the soil and
cutting back on the need for tillage and irrigation.

Most of all, people in the developing world may benefit from
biotechnology. Even now, millions of people worldwide face conditions
similar to those the early settlers endured - hunger, malnutrition and the
threat of famine. Biotechnology has the potential to help grow more food
on the same land, and to raise crops even in tough conditions like drought
or depleted soil. These efforts to improve the quality of food have helped
me and my fellow farmers ensure that today's Thanksgiving is far more
bountiful than the first one. And I believe that biotechnology will help
lead the way to even more abundant and nutritious Thanksgivings in years
to come.

Criss Davis
17092 Blackhawk Road,
Shullsburg, Wis.

Dear Forum Members,

At FAO, we are in the process of building up an inventory of known
cases of products/processes derived from or making use of modern
biotechnology that are already in use or that are still in the pipeline,
which can be of use in developing countries. The information will help us
to increase FAO's knowledge on the state of the art of available and
pipeline products /processes in agricultural biotechnology and will
complement the information received from patent offices and international
and national research institutions world-wide. With this purpose, we would
appreciate your assistance by filling in the questionnaire you will find
below and returning it to the Forum Administrator (biotech-admin@fao.org),
by Friday 8

Please note that for this inventory, agricultural biotechnology includes
applications for animals, crops, fisheries, forestry and foods and that
the technologies include

- Genomics: the molecular characterisation of species.
- Bioinformatics: the assembly of data from genomic analysis into
accessible forms.
- Transformation: the introduction of one or more genes into animals,
fish, plants and trees.
- Molecular breeding: the identification and evaluation of traits in
breeding programs by the use of marker-assisted selection for animals,
fish, plants and trees
- Diagnostics: the use of molecular characterisation to identify pathogens
and other organisms.
- Vaccine technology: the use of modern immunology to develop recombinant
DNA vaccines against diseases.
- Tissue and cell culture

Thanks in advance

The Forum Administrator

p.s. Conference 5 of the Forum, on the theme of biotechnology and food
security and hunger, continues to be both very active and very good. To
date, 62 messages have been posted, submitted by 25 different people in 17
different countries. The conference runs until 17 December. To join,
simply send an e-mail message to mailserv@mailserv.fao.org leaving the
subject blank and entering the following one-line text message: subscribe



commercial use, testing phase, field trial, etc.)



(e.g. to yields, nutritional quality or costs of production)

7. SOURCE OF THE INFORMATION (e.g. your research institute or the
research institute that has developed the process/product described).