Tortilla Chips Going Biotech as Limits Change on Seeds

By Philip Brasher
Des Moines Register
November 30, 2008

Tortilla chips are going biotech.

White corn, the variety that’s milled into chips, taco shells and tortillas, has for years been free of genetic engineering. Millers and companies such as snack-food giant Frito-Lay bought only conventional, biotech-free varieties of the specialty corn from farmers.

But that’s changing. Farmers in Iowa, Nebraska and other states started growing a small amount of genetically modified white corn this year after word came down from processors they would start accepting it. “Our domestic millers have always been in favor of it,” said Todd Gerdes, specialty grains manager for Aurora Cooperative, which buys white corn at three of its locations in Nebraska. The corn is sold to domestic mills and for export. “What they’ve always wanted to do is to make sure that they didn’t accept (biotech versions) and drive away their customers.” “They’ve come to a comfort level where they can convince their customers it’s OK.” That change of heart has opened a new business for Pioneer Hi-Bred, which offered three white varieties of its Herculex corn for the first time this year and plans to bring out three more in 2009. About 2 percent of Pioneer’s white corn seed this year was genetically modified. Virtually all of the corn grown in Iowa and nationwide is of yellow varieties and used for livestock feed, ethanol and for sweeteners and other food uses. Some 80 percent of the yellow corn seed planted this year was genetically engineered to make the plants toxic to insect pests or immune to a popular weed killer, or both.

Biotech varieties have been in the market for more than a decade, and there were even some versions in white corn in the 1990s. But industry officials said millers got spooked by the controversies that initially surrounded biotech crops, including the StarLink episode in 2000. StarLink, a variety of biotech corn produced by a Pioneer rival, was found in taco shells and other food products without having been approved for food use. Morry Bryant, Pioneer’s key account manager for corn processing, said millers have changed their minds about biotech corn in part because of concerns about grain quality. Corn that has insect damage is susceptible to diseases that can make the grain toxic. “When you have a healthier plant you typically have better grain quality,” Bryant said. “They also like it because their growers like it.” Foreign corn buyers also are playing a role in the acceptance of biotech corn, Gerdes said. They already pay farmers a premium for white corn and feared that would go up unless they allowed farmers to grow genetically engineered versions, he said. Darrel McAlexander, who farms near Sidney, Ia., and sells white corn to the Grupo Minsa mill in Red Oak, grew 50 acres of the biotech version this year. It turned in a sizable increase in yield of about 25 bushels per acre over the production he got on the other 1,400 acres of conventional white corn, he said. “Now that Frito-Lay has approved it and some of the other food processors, I think we’re going to see more” biotech white corn, said McAlexander, who is chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. But as prices for yellow corn have risen to historically high levels during the past two years, premiums for white corn also have gone up, and are now running at about 60 to 70 cents a bushel, Gerdes said.

A spokeswoman for Frito-Lay said the company’s individual business units can decide whether to buy genetically engineered ingredients. Officials with Mexico-based Minsa and Azteca Milling, a Texas-based unit of another Mexican company, GRUMA, did not respond to requests for comment on their buying decisions. The fact that another food market has fallen to agricultural biotechnology isn’t evidence that consumers are accepting genetically engineered crops, said Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group long critical of the industry. The continued growth in sales of organic foods shows consumers don’t want biotech foods, he said. Organic farming rules prohibit use of genetically engineered seeds. Domestic use of white corn has been growing about 4 percent to 7 percent a year as the Latino population has grown, although white corn still represents a fraction of overall corn production, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University. About 700,000 acres were planted to white corn in 2005, up from 430,000 acres in 1990. Texas and Nebraska are the leading producers, although white corn is also grown in southwest Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.