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Food Makers See Crunch Time Against New Maize for Fuel

A Frito Lay worker inspects chips before they are packaged at a factory in Irving, Texas
A Frito Lay worker inspects chips before they are packaged at a factory in Irving, Texas

This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.


Food companies say a new kind of maize could take the crunch out of corn chips and other popular foods.

The big Swiss company Syngenta genetically engineered the maize to contain an enzyme called alpha amylase. The company says this enzyme will help the crop produce more ethanol, a renewable fuel, while using less water and energy.

Syngenta official Jack Bernens explains how it works.

JACK BERNENS: "You know, in real simple terms, it breaks the starch down into sugar which then is obviously fermented into ethanol."

A two thousand seven law requires gasoline in the United States to contain renewable fuels. About forty percent of America's corn crop is being used this year to make ethanol.

The Department of Agriculture has approved the genetically modified maize without restrictions. But five major groups in the food industry say they are concerned that the new maize could enter the food supply. They are not expressing concerns about food safety and have not opposed other genetically engineered crops.

But in a joint statement they say the enzyme that breaks down starch could harm the taste of their products. For example, they say it might soften cereals and cause corn chips to lose their satisfying crunch.

Mary Waters heads one of those food groups, the North American Millers' Association. She says even a small amount of the maize could cause problems if it mixes with corn used to make food.

MARY WATERS: "It would only take one kernel in ten thousand to affect food processing."

Snack foods made with corn are a six-billion-dollar industry in the United States.

In two thousand one, genetically modified corn made by Syngenta was found in the food supply chain without approval. Syngenta paid a fine to the government.

Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, says the incident caused no health problems.

JIM McCARTHY: "But it did cause major disruptions in the availability of food-grade corn. So we do think this will have a major impact. And we’re urging Syngenta to rethink this."

Syngenta says it will take measures to keep the new maize out of the food supply. Jack Bernens says the company will sell seeds only to farmers who take their crops to nearby ethanol processing plants. He says the company will not sell seed in areas where food makers get their maize.

Mr. Bernens says the company has done a lot of research and found that the risk from a few kernels is overstated. The food industry groups object to conditions placed on companies that want to study that research. Syngenta says it has trade secrets to protect.

And that's the VOA Special English Agriculture Report, written by Jerilyn Watson and Steve Baragona . I'm Bob Doughty.


Contributing: Dana Demange