Md. farmer files suit over genetic mix-up in nation's corn crop

Alterations found in food supply hurt profits, man says

March 02, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

As many as 3,500 Maryland farmers have lost money on their corn crops because genetically modified corn that was never approved for human consumption found its way into the nation's food supply.

So says Richard Smith, a Baltimore County farmer who has filed suit in county Circuit Court seeking compensation for farmers allegedly hurt by a French pharmaceutical company's experimental corn.

Smith, a Fork resident, claims in a class-action suit that the price for his 50 acres of corn was slashed because Aventis Cropscience USA Holding Inc. mishandled its genetically engineered corn.

The corn, marketed as StarLink, was approved for sale only as animal feed when 10,000 acres of it were planted across the country in 1998. But StarLink became mixed with corn approved for humans and that prompted a series of highly publicized recalls last fall of taco shells, muffins and other corn products.

The government said yesterday that traces of StarLink were found again this winter in seed being prepared for sale to farmers, but that none of the grain has been planted.

The contamination was discovered during testing that seed companies did at the Agriculture Department's request, USDA officials said. Industry officials said the contamination is highly unlikely to cause a shortage of seed this spring.

Smith's suit alleges that because Aventis mishandled StarLink, "rampant commingling" occurred in silos and storage bins, "contaminating the supply of human consumption corn and consequently severely reducing the market value."

The mixing and recalls created a perception that U.S. corn was contaminated, which crippled the market for corn overseas and deflated prices, the suit says.

The suit seeks damages for thousands of farmers like Smith, who saw prices decline for their corn between 1998 and 2000.

Smith and officials from Aventis declined to comment on the suit.

But Smith's lawyers said that it is difficult to estimate the losses to Maryland corn farmers.

"Anything is possible. Nationally the costs for this could be in the millions of dollars," said Charles J. Piven, a Baltimore attorney.

The suit claims that there are "thousands" of corn farmers in Maryland and it seeks to have them join Smith as plaintiffs.

U.S. Census figures show 3,554 Maryland farms grew 405,000 acres of corn in 1997, the latest year that figures were available, said Richard Dittman, a statistician for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. State officials say that corn prices have been low for years, but they don't know whether StarLink has been a factor.

"It's true the market for corn is weak right now, but I haven't heard that it was because of any one problem," said Bruce L. Gardner, an agricultural economist with the University of Maryland.

Gardner and other experts believe corn prices have been depressed for the same reason other grains are selling low: record harvests and flat demand.

Corn was selling for about $1.80 a bushel after November's harvest, almost half the $3.20 price of 1996 when drought conditions crippled production, said James Downs, a University of Maryland grain marketing analyst.

"We've had good years in terms of high yields, but exports and usage have not kept up with production," Downs said.

Engineered to resist European corn borers and other pests, StarLink was approved for use only as an animal feed because the Environmental Protection Agency had questions about whether a protein that it contains could cause allergic reactions. Farmers in Maryland and at least nine other states began growing StarLink three years ago. Production expanded from 10,000 acres in 1998 to 350,000 acres in the 2000 growing season, according to the suit.

But while StarLink was supposed to be stored separately from the corn for humans, it began showing up last September on store shelves, in grain elevators and food processing plants.

"The problem is there is only one distribution system for the nation's corn supply in this country," said John Grogan, an editor at Organic Gardening magazine and the author of a book about organic and genetically engineered foods.

The suit alleges that overseas, the reaction to the contamination problem was swift.

Japan, the largest foreign market for U.S. corn, cut its purchases by 50 percent and South Korea, the second-largest market, banned importation of U.S. corn, according to the suit. Together Japan and South Korea bought half of the 2 million bushels of U.S. corn exported in 1999, the suit says.

An Aventis spokeswoman said the firm pulled StarLink off the market last fall, announced it was getting out of the agricultural research business and offered compensation to farmers who either used StarLink or had corn contaminated by cross pollination because StarLink was grown nearby.

Estimates of the costs for reimbursement have ranged from $100 million to $1 billion.

"As a company when you make a mistake, you do all the things you can to fix it, and that's what happened," said Rhonda Barnett, a spokeswoman for Aventis, a multinational pharmaceutical firm based in Strasbourg, France.

She added that no serious illnesses were reported and that the total amount of StarLink being grown was less than 1 percent of the 80 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. last year. But that has not prevented lawsuits.

Aventis was hit with federal class action suits last December in Iowa and Illinois by lawyers representing non-StarLink farmers across the country.

A separate class action suit was filed by attorney Roxanne Conlin on behalf of Iowa farmers in Polk County District Court in Des Moines Feb. 5.

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