A StarLink To The Past?

One of my favorite quotes is by philosopher George Santayana: “Those that do not learn by history’s mistakes are condemned to repeat them.” I think this comment’s cautionary note is what makes it so profound — remember past errors. Or else.

Strangely, I was reminded of this quote recently reading a series of news stories and press releases involving ethanol production and new seed traits. As everyone knows, ethanol demand has pushed corn acres to unprecedented levels in 2007. Naturally, input suppliers have positioned their products to take advantage of this growth.

An example of this hit my desk in May, when Syngenta issued a press release touting its corn rootworm-controlling Agrisure RW seed trait as a way for growers to meet ethanol demand. “Corn-on-corn acres are at greatest risk from rootworm feeding and growers want this trait to protect their yields,” said Chuck Lee, head of Syngenta corn products. Significantly, the release emphasized Agrisure RW is for use in “domestic markets.”

One day later, a news story appeared expressing concerns about the launch of Agrisure RW seed. Ac­cord­ing to Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), his group was concerned that corn grown from this seed — which is approved  in the U.S. and New Zealand, but not elsewhere — could mistakenly end up in the export market for another product of the ethanol boom, distillers dried grain (DDG). “Export markets are quickly becoming a major component of the DDG market,” wrote Dinneen. “More than 10% of U.S. DDG production was exported in 2006, with Mexico and the Pacific Rim the fastest growing markets.” He suggested Syngenta gain more country approvals before marketing Agrisure RW to the ethanol industry.

Unfortunately, this debate on “select markets for seed traits” sounds a bit too familiar for my comfort. Remember back in the late 1990s? With biotechnology all the rage, seed suppliers were rushing to get new traits into the mix. One such corn variety was Star­Link from Aventis Crop Sciences. Although it was only approved for use as animal feed because of the potential for an allergic reaction in humans, StarLink corn somehow ended up in taco shells in the fall of 2000. This lead to a public relations nightmare, dozens of product recalls, and one huge black eye that the biotech seed industry is still trying to recover from almost seven years later.

In hindsight of the StarLink incident, observers thought it was “unwise” to market seed types that didn’t have “widespread regulatory approval” because of the risk of supply chain errors.

Now I’m not suggesting Agrisure RW will end up in the wrong place the way StarLink did. Traceability and product tracking are much more evolved today than they were back in 2000.

But should the industry take the chance of another “select market” product ending up where it shouldn’t be? Ethanol critics are already beginning to raise their voices. Popular news sources such as ABC’s 20/20 and News­week magazine are already questioning ethanol’s usefulness. Even the United Nations has weighed in on the food vs. fuel debate. Do we really want to give these naysayers more potential ammunition to attack us?

In this sense, I agree with RFA’s Din­neen. It’s better to be cautious. Or else we risk history repeating itself. 

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