WASHINGTON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - A grassroots coalition of farmers worried about the costs of StarLink corn contamination said Tuesday it wants state attorneys general to push for legislation to make seed companies liable for any financial losses from gene-altered crops.
The newly formed Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering said it also wanted state officials to investigate whether Aventis SA (NYSE:AVE - news) and other seed companies have adequate segregation procedures in place for biotech crops as they move from farm fields to grain elevators to rail or barge cars.
The coalition includes the American Corn Growers Association, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy and two dozen other groups which oppose biotech crops.
Larger farm groups such as the National Farm Bureau and the National Corn Growers Association are longtime supporters of gene-altered crops, which they say are safe and thoroughly tested.
But a key concern for all farmers is who will pay for any losses due to either a consumer backlash against gene-spliced crops, or harm to the environment or human health, the coalition contends.
Industry analysts expect Aventis to face hundreds of millions of dollars in liability costs for StarLink, a variety of yellow corn that accidentally slipped into the human food supply this year. More than 300 kinds of taco shells, chips, cornmeal and other foods have been recalled because of contamination.
The incident has also rattled the export markets, with key buyers such as Japan and South Korea suspending or delaying purchases of U.S. corn.
U.S. regulators approved StarLink in 1998 for animal food but refused to permit it in human food because of worries about allergic reactions.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has ``done virtually nothing'' to address liability issues for farmers, said Bill Christison, a Missouri farmer and president of the National Family Farm Coalition.
The coalition said it asked attorneys general in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota, Indiana, Kentucky, Vermont and Montana to support legislation that would protect farmers from liability.
Farmers may face ``substantial'' costs for inadvertently contaminating a neighbor's crops with windborne pollen from bio-crops, or for other lapses in the marketing chain, said Lynn Hayes, an attorney with the Farmers Legal Action Group, a member of the coalition.
Farm groups in two states -- Minnesota and Massachusetts -- are already drafting proposed legislation that would make Aventis and other seed companies responsible for any legal liability. The proposals will be presented to state lawmakers in the coming weeks, a spokesman for the coalition said.
The coalition has not yet decided whether it will seek federal legislation to protect farmers from liability issues, he said.
The coalition said in a statement that it asked the state attorneys general to:
* Issue opinions on the extent to which farmers or seed companies are liable for damages caused by contamination of traditional crops and the failure to segregate bio-crops.
* Support legislation that places liability on companies who develop and manufacture genetically modified seeds for all economic and environmental damages caused by these products.
* Investigate both genetically modified seed marketing practices in their states to determine whether farmers are properly advised of the liability risks and their responsibilities in growing bio-crops, and the adequacy of segregation procedures at all stages of the marketing chain.
* Meet with farmers to inform them of the legal issues related to production and marketing of GMO crops.
* Investigate whether companies developing, manufacturing, and marketing genetically modified crops are violating antitrust laws.
Aventis contends StarLink is safe for human consumption, and has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the corn for human food.
The European company has been buying back as much of this year's harvest as possible by offering U.S. farmers a 25 cent per bushel premium for StarLink.
Last week, Iowa State Attorney General Tom Miller and his counterparts from 15 other states told Aventis it must also pay farmers for commingled corn tainted with even small amounts of StarLink.
A panel of independent scientists appointed by the EPA will hold a hearing next week to consider whether there is enough scientific data to determine if StarLink can cause allergic reactions such as rashes, diarrhea or respiratory problems.
StarLink was developed to include a gene that acts as a pesticide to protect the young corn plant from destructive bugs.
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Last Updated on 11/24/00