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Bill Orton
(D-Long Beach)

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May 22, 2001

(LOS ANGELES) -- As American farmers find it tougher to sell their corn overseas, a statewide gathering of Democrats meeting in California endorsed a call for product labeling and safety testing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as the way to protect farmers from panic in the commodities markets.

"There is no single word more feared in farm communities than panic," said Bill Orton, author of a resolution adopted by delegates to the 49th annual California Democratic Council (CDC) convention, held this past weekend in Los Angeles.

Citing an eight-month panic in corn markets caused by StarLink -- a genetically modified corn not meant for human consumption but which wound up in tortillas, chips and other food products -- Orton wants to change how people see the issue of GMOs.

"Environmentalists have their take and other people object to GMOs on religious and ethical grounds," said Orton, "but missing in the debate is that labeling and safety testing would protect farmers from a panic in the global commodities markets."

Orton's resolution, passed unanimously at the CDC convention, cites the negative financial impacts that have hit farmers, laborers, silo operators, warehousers, banks, shippers, and rural businesses due to the Starlink panic.

The CDC was founded by Alan Cranston and other Democratic activists who used the party's club structure as a powerbase for electing grass-roots candidates and for pushing progressive issues at the annual statewide convention.Cranston rose to the United States Senate, in large part due to his affiliation with CDC.

Orton's resolution is aimed to prevent precisely the sort of panic which has been gripping farm communities across America since last November.

The discovery last fall of the GMO-tainted corn in products on the grocery shelves resulted in widespread recalls, including by food-giant Kelloggs, which pulled their Morningstar Farms and Loma Linda brand meat-free corn dogs after samples showed the presence of Starlink.

Also recalled were Mission brand tortillas and chips and scores of other food items.

Of great concern to American farmers is the threat to corn exports, particularly as Japan and Europe enforce their strict labeling and safety testing laws.

Already, the StarLink scare has caused a dramatic drop in American corn exports and a heightened scrutiny of all US corn shipments.

This month, Japanese health ministry officials ordered testing of 58 shipments of US corn for traces of StarLink, despite USDA-ordered tests of all American corn bound for Japan.

Japanese corn buyers visiting Nebraska told agricultural leaders there that they would buy up to two-thirds of their corn from suppliers outside the US because of concerns over StarLink.The Japanese are reportedly looking to China, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa for future corn imports.

"The people who get hurt in a panic are ordinary farmers, workers, and business owners," said Orton.

Big businesses are cushioned by insurance and better cash flow, but ordinary farmers cannot afford a stop-order on their crops.When buyers back out during a panic, farmers are only the first ones hit.Silo operators and warehousers cannot turn around their storage space, transportation companies are stalled, and thousands of workers are idled.

The recent panic that has hit corn markets shows how farmers are hurt, says Orton.

People believe that the use of StarLink is widespread, but it was grown on only 315,000 acres by 2,200 farmers in 12 states, according to the National Grain and Feed Association.

While planted on just 0.4 percent of US corn acres, StarLink tainted much greater acreage, by mixing with other varieties through handling.Up to a bushel of corn can remain in a combine after harvest.The corn is also spread by cross-pollinating with other varieties after being carried by insects, birds and wind.

According to the USDA, as much as 10% of the US corn crop is contaminated with StarLink.The agency has conducted more than 110,000 tests around the country since last November.Nationwide, StarLink appeared in nine percent of all samples. In the Midwest, where StarLink was used extensively, up to 16 percent of samples tested positive.

"StarLink proves the need to come up with an answer to the panic issue," says Orton."Product labeling and safety testing are a small price to pay to bring stability and predictability to the commodities markets."

Orton intends to circulate his labeling and safety testing resolution throughout California, as he searches for state and federal lawmakers interested in carrying the issue from a pro-farmer perspective.

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Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.