New-Tech Corn Sparks Debate

Syngenta release of Agrisure RW raises industry questions.

A new corn trait approved for grain planted in the U.S. this season is getting a lot of attention this year. While industry sources worry over Agrisure RW and its lack of approvals in key export markets, farmers have snapped up hybrids with the trait helping its maker Syngenta Seeds have a first-year sellout. The product, which offers another approach for controlling corn rootworm, was approved by USDA in March.

Corn with the trait would be planted on less than 0.5% of the corn acres this year, the company reports. Yet, a wide range of industry, trade, food and even transportation organizations have delivered a resounding message: "great technology, but wait for Japan approval or take responsibility for managing the repercussions of its release."

At press time, the grain from Agrisure RW was not approved for import in any export market including Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Canada, although all are pending.

Syngenta, which has invested heavily in the technology, delivers a different message: "Why let another country's regulatory program delay our growers' use of technology," says Chuck Lee, head of Syngenta corn products. The trait developer says farmers have the ability to channel this grain and keep it out of the export market by selling it to feed users and to dry-grind ethanol plants that don't export their coproducts. Syngenta contends the market has changed thanks to rising demand for corn.

"The market has not changed," says Martin Barbre, chair of the NCGA Biotech Working Group. The Illinois farmer worries that putting this new trait into the field without approval by a major corn customer could hurt business. "If a grower makes a mistake with this there will be trouble. These countries have zero tolerance [for traits that are not approved]. If we see this product in a Japanese port this fall without approval there we will see a market drop that will affect growers profits in the future. The Japanese approval system is very predictable and thorough. We as producers need to protect our markets. We aren’t letting another country control our use of technology, we are delivering what our customer wants."

While Syngenta says it will sell out of hybrids with the Agrisure RW trait, in part due to the small amount available this season, there are farmers afraid to plant the grain, according to field reports. Many are also upset that the technology is available without export market approvals.

While Syngenta says it will sell out of hybrids with the Agrisure RW trait, in part due to the small amount available this season, there are farmers afraid to plant the grain, according to field reports. Many are also upset that the technology is available without export market approvals.

Observers of this issue are quick to point to past biotech challenges including Starlink and others. Lee notes that Starlink was different because that product had never been approved for food use. Agrisure RW has all food and feed approvals for sale in the U.S. market.

However, Randall Gordon, vice president, communications, National Grain and Feed Association, remarks that the number of acres to be planted with Agrisure RW this year is more than was planted to Starlink, which was legal to plant in the U.S. for animal feed use only. "We're still dealing with the aftermath of Starlink after, what, six years?" he says. Some segments of the grain industry still are conducting tests for the presence of Starlink to meet zero-tolerance demands of trading partners and domestic users.

He adds that Syngenta has put the onus, market risk and the cost of keeping this technology out of the export market entirely on the producer and the U.S. grain handling and processing system. "If Syngenta is so certain its stewardship program is fail-safe, why is it unwilling to provide commercial assurance to protect subsequent handlers from economic damage if Agrisure RW is detected in export shipments?," Gordon asks.

At a crossroads

For Syngenta's Lee the issue at hand is about a market that must adjust for a changing tech world. "We think it's time all of us in the grain industry need to change," he says. "If you think back a decade ago we figured out how to work around Europe."

Syngenta's position is that every country has the right to conduct their regulatory reviews under their own terms, but the challenge this raises for U.S. agriculture is when these reviews are not synchronized with available U.S.-approved technology, growers are denied yield and quality-enhancing products.

He says the grain industry must "step up to the plate" to meet customer demands for identity preserved products. "If Japan wants corn without these traits fully approved in the U.S. then they should be willing to pay for that corn," Lee says.

But NGFA's Gordon counters that the industry didn't "work around" the European market - it "lost" it. Further, he says identity preserving grain adds costs that exporters have limited ability to pass on to foreign buyers in the highly competitive grain export market.

"What makes Syngenta's action so significant - and troubling - from our perspective is that it is the first and only biotech provider to make an overt, conscious decision to commercialize a biotech trait without obtaining approval from important U.S. export markets - like Japan - that have fully functioning, science-based regulatory systems for assessing the safety of these products," the NGFA's Gordon says. "That's a dangerous, high-risk path to embark upon."

For growers who plant Agrisure RW this season the world will be watching. All buyers must provide a signed stewardship form that shows they have a safe, domestic market for the grain. The trait is available from Garst, Golden Harvest and NK Brand dealers, and in demonstration trial and test plots of other independent and regional seed companies.

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