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Aventis: Global Compact Violator

by Gabriela FloraInstitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
June 14th, 2001

Aventis' genetically-modified corn seeds have illegally contaminated the food supply.
Aventis' genetically-modified corn seeds have illegally contaminated the food supply. Courtesy of IATP

This article is the first in a series of investigations on whether corporations signed onto the UN Global Compact are living up to their commitment to nine socially responsible principles contained in the agreement.


Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
-- Rio Declaration, Principle 15

Since Aventis signed on to the Global Compact in July 2000, their genetically engineered StarLinkTM corn has illegally contaminated the food supply and seed stock. A look at the company's behavior regarding StarLink shows that before, during and after signing the Compact, Aventis violated Global Compact's Principle 7, which is drawn from the Rio Declaration and supports "a precautionary approach to environmental challenges."

This article evaluates the StarLink scandal in light of Aventis' commitment, via the Global Compact, to the precautionary approach.


StarLink and Bt

StarLink corn contains modified genes from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Inserting Bt genes causes the corn plant to produce an insecticidal property, the Bt toxin. StarLink contains a souped up version of Bt, the Cry9C endotoxin, which has two significant characteristics of known allergens: it is not broken down by gastric juices or by heat. Because of concerns of allergenicity, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only approved it for animal and industrial uses and mandated that it be kept out of the human food supply. In addition, the EPA's limited approval also required StarLink to have a 660-foot non-GMO buffer zone around the crop to control pollen drift. Aventis was to require farmers to sign a licensing agreement stating that the grower was aware of and would adhere to these two requirements.1

Although StarLink was grown on less than 1% of U.S. corn acres, the resulting contamination of other corn varieties significantly impacts links throughout the food chain, from farmers, grain elevators, food processors to retail grocers and consumers. Without a system of segregation or the ability to control pollen drift, StarLink contaminated much of the U.S. corn supply. The full costs of this contamination continue to emerge, however current estimates run in the hundreds of billions of dollars.2


Applying a precautionary approach

The UN guidelines on applying a precautionary approach are found on their Global Compact website. The first suggestion is:

"Analyze potential environmental impacts of production processes and products (technology assessment)"

In the company's eagerness to sell its product, Aventis moved StarLink onto the market without thoroughly analyzing its potential environmental impacts. The impacts of Bt crops on the environment are uncertain. Long-term, broad scale studies are significantly lacking.3 The framework used to evaluate the technology has been very narrow and has not provided the necessary information to evaluate the safety of Bt crops.4

Aventis marketed StarLink despite knowing that corn that because it continually exudes the Bt toxin, it will render an important organic pesticide, Bt spray, ineffective. Bt spray is an essential tool used by organic and sustainable farmers for their worst pest infestation problems. Loss of the spray could cause environmental damage by increasing reliance on more toxic chemicals.

Despite the lack of long-term, broad scale investigations, a number of studies have shown negative impacts of Bt crops on non-target insects and soil microbia.5 We know that pollen from Bt corn is toxic to lady bird beetles6, lace wings7 and monarch butterfly larvae8. What we do not know is whether the impacts of this toxicity in the environment are significant. Without further information, it was irresponsible and in violation of the precautionary approach for Aventis to have commercialized StarLink.

The UN further advises business to:

"Build-in safety margins when setting standards in areas where significant uncertainty still exists"

The EPA mandated that Aventis ensure that a 660-foot buffer zone of non-GMO corn be planted around StarLink corn to control contamination. Aventis did nothing to ensure the buffer zones were being used. They did nothing to monitor the effectiveness of the buffer zones. In addition, they did nothing to test to ensure that contamination was not taking place.

StarLink pollen has been reported to have blown more than three-quarters of a mile beyond the 660-foot buffer zone.9 In turn, this resulted in contamination of the 2001 corn seed stock.10 The US Department of Agriculture reported that 78 companies found their corn seeds to be contaminated by the StarLink Cry9C protein.11

In addition, the Global Compact website suggests:

"Ban or restrict an activity whose impact on the environment is uncertain"

Because there are so many unanswered questions about the potential impacts of StarLink on the environment, and cross pollination is very difficult to control, under the precautionary approach StarLink should have never been put on the market.

The final guidelines from the UN for applying the precautionary approach is:

"Communicate with stakeholders"

Aventis failed miserably in applying this guideline despite the fact that the company was legally required to inform growers that StarLink corn cannot be sold into international or human food markets and that a 660 foot buffer zone must be planted.12 Since the discovery of the widespread contamination of StarLink corn with corn bound for human consumption, it has become clear that Aventis did not take the proper steps to inform farmers and seed dealers of the restrictions in use of StarLink corn and the required buffer zone. In fact, the seed bags and the tag attached to each seed bag made no mention of these restrictions and requirements.13

What has Aventis done over the past year since it signed the Global Compact to come into compliance with the Precautionary Approach?

In the aftermath of the StarLink scandal, Aventis has not taken full responsibility for the contaminated corn seed stock. Although the company purchased some of the co-mingled corn and funneled it to non-human uses, it will still cost taxpayers between $15 to $20 million to buy up all the contaminated seed.14

Aventis is going the extra mile to avoid ultimate liability. After it became public that many farmers were not properly informed about the restrictions on StarLink, Aventis attempted to have farmers retroactively sign contracts stating that the corn would not be used for human consumption and that a 660-foot buffer would be implemented.15

And Aventis is still trying to prevent StarLink from being fully recalled. Under pressure from the EPA, Aventis canceled its registration for StarLink corn in October. However, two weeks later Aventis petitioned the EPA to obtain temporary approval of StarLink for human consumption. The expert panel of scientists reported to the EPA in early December that there is a moderate risk that StarLink could produce adverse health impacts on humans and that there are many unanswered questions about the safety of the corn. In response, Aventis has asked the EPA to set an acceptable tolerance level for StarLink contamination.16

Thus, even after joining the Global Compact, and even after facing disastrous consequences of failing to take a precautionary approach regarding StarLink corn, Aventis continues to behave in defiance of this simple principle.


Conclusion

Aventis' actions with StarLink are classic non-precautionary behavior. Faced with evidence of the potential for serious harm, but none conclusively proving safety nor lack of safety, Aventis chose to rush the product to market. This decision came in spite of the fact that any harm may be irreparable, because once released into the environment, StarLink is impossible to recall.

After the scandal broke, Aventis attempted to control the damage by avoiding financial responsibility and legal liability, and by trying to obtain retroactive approval. Aventis should be suspended from the Global Compact until their behavior comes in line with its principles.

Comments on this article can be sent to kbruno@corpwatch.org


Endnotes

  1. "StarLink: Crisis in Confidence," Food Chemical News, Special Report, Vol. 42:37, October 20, 2000.

  2. Ann Thayer, "StarLink Corn Derails Ag Chain," Chemical and Engineering News, Vol. 79, No. 4, January 22, 2001.

  3. Committee on Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants, Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation. National Research Council, Washington, D.C. National Academy Press, June, 2000; Michelle Marvier, "Ecology of Transgenic Crops," American Scientist, Vol. 89, March-April 2001; Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy, "Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment", Policy Studies Report No. 15, Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy at Winrock International, Arlington, Virginia, January 2001.

  4. L.L. Wolfenbarger and P.R. Phifer, "The Ecological Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Plants," Science, Vol. 290, December 15, 2000.

  5. D. Saxen et al., "Insecticdal Toxin in Root Exudates from Bt Corn," Nature, 402:480, 1999; L.S. Watrud and R.J. Seidler, "Nontarget Ecological Effects of Plant, Microbial, and Chemical Introductions to Terrestrial Systems," Soil Chemistry and Ecosystem Health, Special Publication 52, Social Science Society of America, Madison, Wisconsin. 1998.

  6. A.N.E. Birch, I.E. Geoghegan, M.E.N. Majerus, C. Hacket, and J. Allen, "Interactions between plant resistance genes, pest aphid populations and beneficial aphid predators," Scottish Crop Research Institute Annual Report 1996/97. Scottish Crop Research Institute, Dundee, Scotland, 1997.

  7. A. Hilbeck, W.J. Moar, M. Pusztai-Carey, A. Filippini, and G. Bigler, "Toxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1AB toxin to the predator Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae)," Environmental Entomology Vol. 27, 1998.

  8. J.E. Losey, L.S. Raynor, and M.E. Carter, "Transgenic Pollen Harms Monarch Larvae," Nature, May 20, 1999.

  9. Art Hovey, "StarLink protein found in other crops in Nebraska," Lincoln Star Journal, March 28, 2001.

  10. Marc Kaufman, "Engineered Corn Turns Up in Seed," Washington Post, March 1, 2001.

  11. "USDA Says 78 Companies Found Cry9C Protein in Seed Corn," Food Chemical News, April 23, 2001.

  12. J.Feder Barnaby, "Farmers Cite Scarce Data in Corn Mixing," New York Times, October 17, 2000; William Ryberg, "Growers of biotech corn say they weren't warned," Des Moines Register, October 25, 2000.

  13. Author obtained a StarLink seed bag. Also see Neil E. Harl, Roger G. Ginder, Charles R. Hurburgh and Steve Moline, "The StarLink Situation," March 15, 2001, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative, Iowa State University (Downloaded April 27, 2001).

  14. Jill Carroll, "U.S. Buyback of Corn Seed Draws 77 Smaller Companies," The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2001.

  15. Neil E. Harl, Roger G. Ginder, Charles R. Hurburgh and Steve Moline, "The StarLink Situation," March 15, 2001, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative, Iowa State University (Downloaded April 27, 2001).

  16. Andrew Pollack, "Aventis Tries a New Tack on StarLink Corn," The New York Times, April 24, 2001.

Gabriela Flora is Program Associate in the Trade and Agriculture Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She is active in the public policy debate on agricultural genetic engineering throughout the Americas.