Genetically modified corn worries snack food firms

A new type of genetically-modified maize intended for ethanol biofuel production has won approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The biofuels industry welcomes this new genetically modified maize, created by the agriculture giant Syngenta. But opposition is coming from an unusual source — snack food makers.

Maize-based snacks are a $6 billion business in the U.S. And the snack industry says the crunch of their chips is threatened by an enzyme genetically engineered into Syngenta’s new maize.

The enzyme, known as alpha amylase, breaks down starch into sugar, which is then fermented into ethanol.

According to Syngenta, having the enzyme built into the maize will help produce more ethanol while consuming less water and energy.

A 2007 U.S. law requiring gasoline to be blended with renewable fuels has driven up demand for ethanol. This year, 40 percent of the U.S. maize crop went to ethanol production.

But what is good for producing ethanol is not good for everyone.

“We don’t produce ethanol. We produce food products,” says Mary Waters, president of the North American Millers Association, one of five major food industry groups that are, in their words, deeply disappointed with Agriculture Department’s decision to approve the crop without restrictions.

They are not worried about food safety. In a joint statement, they noted they have supported other genetically-engineered crops.

The worry, Waters says, is that Syngenta’s starch-busting maize could turn cereal soggy, snack chips crumbly or hurt other processed foods if even a tiny amount ends up in the human food chain.

“It would only take one kernel in 10,000 to affect food processing,” she said.

And it would not be the first time a genetically-modified product wound up where it did not belong. Unapproved genteically modified maize turned up in the food supply in 2001, as did unapproved rice in 2006. Estimates vary widely, but the financial losses from these contamination cases ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The contaminated maize did not cause health problems. “But it did cause major disruptions in the availability of food grade,” says Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association. “So, we do think this will have a major impact and we’re urging Syngenta to rethink this.”

“I don’t really believe that there’s much probability that there’s going to be any kind of major issue with misdirection of the grain,” Syngenta’s Jack Bernens says.

Bernens says the company will only sell the seeds to farmers who will deliver the crop to nearby ethanol plants. And they will not sell seed near where food facilities get their maize.

Besides, Bernens says, the chance that a few stray kernels would create big problems is overblown. He says the enzyme is most active at specific conditions of temperature, moisture and alkalinity that are different from most food processing.

“We’ve done a lot of work in that area,” he says, “and for the most part, the processes don’t come together under those conditions that would equal the most activity.”

The Snack Food Association’s Jim McCarthy would like to see that research, but he says Syngenta won’t share the data without strict conditions.

“There have been some very restrictive allocations of data to this point,” he says. “And that’s one of the major concerns we have.”

Syngenta originally offered the trade groups access to their evidence, but only if they backed the company’s application to the Agriculture Department for approval. The trade groups rejected that offer. Then Syngenta said they could have the data and samples to test, but only if they signed a confidentiality agreement.

The company says that’s standard business practice to protect trade secrets.

Syngenta notes that it has provided access to information to some in the industry who did sign confidentiality agreements. And the company is setting up an advisory council with members across the industry to resolve any contentious issues.

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