Latin American environmentalists are criticizing our food aid again after a genetically altered type of corn banned for health reasons was found in the shipments.
The problem is StarLink, a type of genetically altered corn that generates its very own, built-in pesticide. It seems to cause allergy symptoms and asthma, so it’s not EPA-approved. Still, a few weeks ago StarLink was detected in bags of World Food Program corn, and now activists in six Latin American countries are denouncing the U.S. for trying to palm off dangerous food on the Guatemalan poor.
Five years ago, U.S. factories shut down and supermarkets pulled corn chips, taco shells, and grits off the shelves after more than 300 different kinds of corn products were found tainted with StarLink, which is supposed to be used only for animal feed and to manufacture ethanol. People were getting sick right and left, and the fiasco cost StarLink developer Aventis CropScience hundreds of millions of dollars.
StarLink was introduced in ’98, but by the year ’00 it was all mixed up in our food supply. Aventis argued that growers weren’t isolating it, as they were supposed to, which led to pollen drift. In addition, grain processors inadvertently mixed StarLink with regular corn at mills and in grain elevators. It seems that no one knew the stuff was so dangerous.
When that word got around, alarms went off around the world as countries demanded that the U.S. stop trying to export StarLink. The Japanese cut U.S. corn imports by 50 percent when they detected it in samples the U.S. Department of Agriculture said was free of StarLink. The Koreans banned American corn all together after detecting StarLink in a shipment of tortillas that the USDA also said was clean. After that, even starving countries like India and Zambia started getting picky.
The biotech industry maintains that no one has ever proven that StarLink is bad for you. Nevertheless, after the scare, the EPA “encouraged” the developer to take it off the market. As for the huge surplus, leftover StarLink was to be fed to animals or and churned into ethanol. And, apparently, sold to the World Food Program.
All evidence to the contrary, the U.S. denies sending StarLink overseas. Ed Loyd, a spokesman for the USDA, says all corn destined for the WFP is tested for StarLink. He says he can’t explain why Genetic I.D., an Iowa-based laboratory, says that 80 percent of the samples they took from aid packages to six countries tested positive for various genetically modified organisms (only the Guatemalans were treated to StarLink), but he told the Voice that the tests the USDA used came out clean.
This isn’t the first time developing countries have been less than pleased to use our science experiments for their sustenance. In 2002 the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development said their World Food Program sacks of corn were contaminated by StarLink. The U.S., a primary contributor to the WFP, is the only country in the world to have ever grown StarLink.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 22, 2005