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Snowed under by StarLink?

Here's how to deal with the fallout.

If the StarLink fiasco has frozen your seed purchase and agronomic plans, don't feel alone. Other farmers and agribusinesses are still grappling with the fallout that occurred when this Bt corn event surfaced in taco shells last year.

Although they approved StarLink for use in livestock feed, federal regulators did not clear the grain for human consumption. The event contains a protein that is suspected of being a human allergen. When StarLink escaped into human consumption channels, Aventis Crop Sciences, which developed the event, initiated an extensive recall.

How did it happen? Blame whom you want, but the identity-preservation channel that was to steer StarLink corn into approved livestock markets and away from human consumption markets failed. Federal regulators won't let that happen again, says Tim Aughenbaugh, president of, an Iroquois, SD, firm that offers identity-preservation services.

“Many of the identity-preservation techniques that need to be implemented out in the field will be accelerated by StarLink,” he predicts.

Identity preservation of biotech grains might mean more work for little or no extra money, says Charles Hurburgh, Iowa State University extension agricultural engineer. “The only time we will get a carrot at the end of the stick is if we raise biotech products with any additional consumer value. It could be that production-oriented biotech grains will sell at a lower price level than other types of grain.”

Aughenbaugh is more optimistic. He believes that documenting in detail how a crop is produced — as does — will boost farmer profits. “We think attaching information is one of easiest ways to attach real value to a crop,” he says.

What can you do now? To help you successfully compete in the post-StarLink environment, we rounded up these pointers from industry and university experts.

Know what you're planting. Remember the old days when you just shook hands with your seed dealer and took his or her word about the variety? The miscommunication that occurred with StarLink destroyed that simplicity. Now you will need to know which varieties are cleared for specific markets.

It's particularly important to determine the export status of seed, because marketing options are limited for varieties not approved for overseas markets, says Doyle Karr, corporate public relations manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International. The National Corn Growers Association's Web site — — is an excellent place to glean such information, Karr says.

“We tell our seed vendors that we want as much information as they can provide,” says Jerry Warner, executive vice president, Farmers National Company, Omaha, NE. “They have really increased the amount of information that they are putting out through the Internet, mail and faxes. People are really trying to work together as to what we have and what we're dealing with.”

Check with your elevator. Because of StarLink, processors will be closely monitoring the origin of grain that they buy. Farmers will see the effects of this scrutiny at grain elevators.

“We encourage farmers not to plant something unless they have talked to their elevator,” says Jeff Adkisson, executive vice president of the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois. “We will see more and more elevators not accepting grain that isn't approved for export.”

Keep the communication lines open at harvest, too. “Let the buyer know what you are delivering,” says Bill Wilcke, a University of Minnesota extension agricultural engineer. “Buyers have to pick up the ball at that point and make sure they have the right truckload going into the right bin.”

It's in the bag. A bag's tag touts that the seed is 96% pure. But what's in the other 4%? It could be harmless inert matter…or seeds from another variety.

Though not a concern with commodity grain, this does pose a problem if you plant crops for end users who specify low varietal contamination levels. If the buyer specifies just 2% varietal contamination for a lot of grain, you'll be licked before you start if your seed already contains 2% of another variety.

“Farmers will say, ‘I thought what I was buying was really in the bag,’” Wilcke says. “But in some cases, there are small amounts of seeds of other varieties in the bag. With new genetics, it's more critical that the seed is pure.”

But how pure? Tests to identity varietal purity exist, but they're expensive. Accuracy also depends upon sample size. For example, a test could verify that 100 seeds in an 80,000-seed bag are of the same variety. However, some of the remaining seeds in the bag could be of other varieties.

“No matter how accurate the test is, it still comes down to the particular sample that you are testing,” Wilcke explains.

Higher varietal tolerances for grain would make life easier for farmers, but it all hinges upon the end user. The zero tolerance for the presence of StarLink in grain for human consumption was an impossible standard, says Jeff Lacina, public relations manager for Garst Seed Company.

“Even bottled water has some degree of tolerance,” Lacina says. “We have to establish standards that farmers, grain handlers and our customers will accept.”

The American Seed Trade Association and the International Seed Trade Federation proposed an initiative in 1999 to establish globally accepted tolerances for biotech material in traditional seed. Yet no standards are now in place.

Competing in this new environment will require cooperation between the farmer and the seed company, says Dan Curry, manager of the Iowa State University Seed Testing Laboratory. Seed companies currently cannot guarantee 100% varietal purity on a seed tag, Curry says. However, they can do their best to work with farmers.

“It would behoove the farmer to say to the seed company, ‘Here's my end market and my requirements. Can you work with me so I can have grain within specifications for this end user?’ Seed companies will be more than willing to work with the farmer,” Curry says.

Clean, clean, clean. Because of StarLink, you may find yourself producing an identity-preserved crop quicker than you had planned. If so, you'll need to clean your planting and harvesting equipment to alleviate varietal contamination.

“Except for commercial seed production, most farmers haven't paid attention to planter and combine clean-out,” says Mark Hanna, an Iowa State University extension agricultural engineer. With a shop vacuum, you can easily clean planters around seed hoppers and where the seed drops.

Cleaning a combine is more complex. “You have to open up access doors, run around the feeder house, separating areas, and clean it out physically with a shop vac,” Hanna explains. “You may also have to shake out some lodged grain.”

Contamination is cumulative. Suppose that you agree to produce a specialty grain with a 1% tolerance level of other varieties. If varietal contamination occurs at a .1% level during planting, .2% during harvesting and .2% during storage, you will succeed. However, starting off with a 1% contamination level at planting will doom your plan.

“The key is, how much cleanliness is enough cleanliness?” Hanna asks. With no firm tolerances, that's currently an unknown.

Randy Harmon, Halderman Farm Management, West Lafayette, IN, explains, “It's possible to clean out a combine and planter, but there are different kinds of clean-out. It's a lot easier to do a 20-minute clean-out than an hour-and-a-half clean-out.”

Know thy neighbor (or not). Corn pollination time could get interesting. Suppose that you grow a special non-genetically modified (GM) corn for a premium. Meanwhile, pollen from your neighbor's GM corn blows in. When your non-GM corn becomes contaminated, your premium vanishes.

An industry rule of thumb dictates that pollen shouldn't drift any further than 660 ft. Buffer strips of commodity corn planted at the end of fields can catch wayward pollen from bordering fields, preventing contamination of identity-preserved varieties.

“But I'm not convinced there are any hard-and-fast rules,” Harmon says. “Pollen drift is fairly sensitive to wind conditions, so what is a sufficient border one year may not be one in the next year. I'd like to see the seed companies and universities provide us with other guidelines for conditions like these.”

Wilcke believes that farmers may work out agreements in neighborhoods or townships to plant certain varieties in specific areas. Farmers may also agree upon field separations.

“For low tolerances, you'd need a longer separation distance,” Wilcke says. “But for 1 to 5% tolerances, it's more manageable.”

Yet questions remain about neighbor cooperation. “We'll either see more or a heck of a lot less,” Hurburgh says. “It's unclear how pollen drift will be treated from an insurance point of view. If communication produces liability for contamination for which there isn't risk protection, neighbors may communicate less.”

Keep records. You'll need to be a better record keeper and leave a paper trail that details your plantings.

“With crops with potential liability, farmers may want to save samples to protect themselves, even if the buyer doesn't require it,” Wilcke says. “Make a note about how you harvested and delivered the grain, just in case someone does some kind of audit. Producers will want to back up any evidence they have.”

Despite the changes, Hurburgh believes that the long-term spillover from StarLink will be positive. “The U.S. industry is now forced to realize that grain has some attributes that customers want and some that customers don't want,” he says. “These experiences will make it easier to handle the specialty grains that biotech will produce.”

ID preservation? No problem

If preserving the identity of your grain unnerves you, relax. Chances are that you're doing it already.

“I don't view this as a tremendous increase as to what farmers are already doing,” says Tim Aughenbaugh, president of, an Iroquois, SD, firm that offers identity-preservation services. “Right now, everything is generally identity preserved at the field level, because farmers usually grow just an individual hybrid or variety in a field. It's only when farmers haul crops into town or put them in a bin that grain is comingled.”

Unique grain characteristics diminish at this point, he says.

“I know of a feed mill that has two plants,” he says. “One plant is located in an area where farmers bring in most of its corn. The other plant receives most of its corn by rail. The corn hauled in by farmers is generally of better quality than the corn the mill receives by rail.”

That's because the corn hauled in by farmers isn't as blended as corn that comes by rail.

“That shows there are some real possibilities out there,” Aughenbaugh says. “We are growing identity-preserved corn in the field. It's just that we diminish unique and potentially valuable characteristics when we blend grain.”

Reasonable tolerances of other varieties will promote farmer adoption of identity-preservation techniques, Aughenbaugh continues.

“StarLink has zero tolerance, and that's the problem,” he says. “Rat excrement has more tolerance than StarLink.

“If reasonable tolerances are established, farmers should be able to meet identity-preserved guidelines with little hassle and glean premiums,” Aughenbaugh continues. “Farmers will need to keep fields weed-free and establish a buffer zone.” They'll also need to fill out the paperwork that documents the field where each seed lot originated.

Cleaning out machinery may not be as big of a hassle as you'd think, Aughenbaugh adds. Let's say you combine a 100-acre field that yields 150 bu./acre. If 10 bu. of corn escape combine clean-out and blend into the identity-preserved seed, varietal contamination is still well under .1%.

“It's good to clean out the combine, but it's not an impossible job if tolerances are built into the system,” Aughenbaugh says.

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