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Unit 13: Genetically Modified Organisms
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Leon Corzine

Corzine and his wife grow corn and soybeans on their family farm near Assumption, Ill. Corzine is past president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. He currently serves on the National Corn Growers Association's Relations Committee and as chairman of the Biotechnology Working Group.

How long have you been growing corn?

Well, I've been growing corn with my dad. After I got out of college, I worked at an elevator for a year or two, and then in 1974 I had an opportunity to come back to the family farm, so I'm the 5th generation on the farm now. My son just came into the operation almost six years ago now, and so he's the 6th generation on our farm.

What changes have you seen in the corn business?

There have been a lot of exciting changes for us-new technologies, both in the seed that we grow, as well as the equipment we use. A lot of things have changed, just a lot of new technology to give us new tools in the toolbox to help us with production agriculture, to be more efficient, as well as provide a higher quality product. Another place we've had big gains has been in the environmental areas as far as doing things in a more environmentally friendly way.

Is the corn borer a big problem in this region vs. others?

Compared to other regions in the corn belt, we'll say, corn borer is not near as high a problem for us. We have incidents of core borer, usually five out of ten years, at an economic threshold. We may only treat for corn borers one out of maybe seven years. So it isn't as big a problem for us right here in this particular.

But it can be?

Yes, it can be, and what we are finding with some of the new varieties that the industry is coming up with, through traditional breeding methods, there are certain traits in those corns that make the BT part or the corn borer protection more beneficial. And so that's we have to look at as we evaluate what we're going to plant.

Is there a workhorse vs. racehorse analogy with BT corn?

We have some of our hybrids-we figure out what we're going to plant each year. Some are known more as workhorse hybrids or they have more stress tolerance built into them, but usually those won't be your very top yielders in a high yield environment so you never know at planting time how much weather pressure you'll get. For example right now, we have some drought stress because it's very dry here. They will hold up better in a drought stress.

But the racehorse hybrids you will plant if you have optimum rain, optimum sunshine-everything is right-they will out-yield, and in the end make you more money than the workhorse hybrids. But in a year like this, the workhorse hybrids will actually yield better than the racehorse hybrids because the racehorses won't have maybe quite as good a root system, won't have quite as good a stalk. They're bred to put more right into the ear, in the production of the corn itself.

So those hybrids, while you want some of them to get that optimum yield, you don't want all racehorse. You want some, and then you want some workhorse hybrids, and that gives you the mix, kind of the thing where you don't want all your eggs in one basket. As you diversify, it's just like buying stocks. You don't buy all one stock. You want a portfolio. And that's what we do in corn production as well.

And the racehorse hybrids, the stalk may not be quite as strong, but the BT part or the protection from corn borer is more important, because one corn borer will do severe damage to that corn affecting standability as well as yield. Whereas the workhorse hybrids, maybe they can handle a corn borer and it won't have a big effect on that plant.

So some traditionally bred corn varieties have the BT gene?

No, but what the industry has done for us with most of the hybrids they offer, is they'll have a BT version as well as a non-BT version of the same genetics. Okay? So what that does is that gives you a choice. It's very important for us in the refuge area, and planting of that as well gives me that option so that if there's a hybrid I really like maybe I don't need the BT. With that technology I can buy those traditional genetics without paying the extra cost for the technology in that GMO seed.

And then conversely, for example, my counterparts in someplace where they have a heavy corn borer pressure, they want the same genetics but they need the BT protection in there-the corn borer protection-so they want it in the BT version. So the seed industry in most cases is providing us that choice and that's a decision I have to make. Do I want the BT version or the conventional version? And as I mentioned, it is more important to have that choice in the racehorse type hybrids.

How did you react when you first heard about BT?

Well, I looked at it as something that we need to take a look at. We try to-most farmers want to take a look at new technologies, as we do every year, even before we had transgenic or biotech products.

You take a look at new products, and you try some of them. You don't jump completely, because it's a big decision when you decide what you're going to plant on your acreage. So you know what has worked in the past. You stay with probably, say, at least two-thirds of your acres, and most people would actually go with what has worked for you in the past, and then you may take that other 25% or so and try two or three new products.

And we looked at the BT corn as a new tool in the toolbox, and with the seed being more expensive we didn't try a lot of it first, but we tried a little bit just to see what it would do. But also before we did that, the first step we had to make was make sure that it was approved in the markets where my corn goes. So that's why corn growers started this whole "know before you grow" campaign so that farmers realize they need to know who their customer is. It used to be farmers thought, well, you know, I take it to my customers, just the local grain elevator, I take it there, I dump it, I get a check for it, and that's the end of it.

Well, we've had to learn a lot more than that, and know who our customer is, where my elevator's taking that grain, is it taking it to a processor that's going into the Japanese market with its products, or the European market, or if it's going to stay here domestically, and is it going to be for food use, for feed use-all those kind of things now farmers have to be aware of and use that in their decision-making process.

Why specifically do you need to know about it going to the European market?

Well, the European market, in particular has been very troublesome. It has never been a huge market for us as far as commodity corn, but we did sell roughly 80 million bushels a year of commodity corn into that European market, and we've been locked out of that now, because Europe has basically put a moratorium on their particular approval process.

Approval for what?

Well, what Europe has done in this whole new era of biotech products is, they had an approval process in place, just like other countries do-the U.S. does, Japan does, and other countries as well-on what they will approve for growing and for selling into their country.

And the process was working, but then some of the extremist groups got a hold of this thing and said, wait a minute, and it became a real political issue. And then Europe put a moratorium on their approval process, which meant any new products that were introduced could not go into the European market because they stopped their approval process. And that's where we're still sitting today, and we've been that way for about five years now and we really need to get that going, because the problem is, as we get new tools in the toolbox with new products coming that actually are exciting for us, they are going to be good things for us in agriculture. They're more environmentally friendly, they help me with my efficiencies as well as creating less need for chemical use and all of those kind of good things. I'm not going to be able to use them if my market, my end use customer, is in Europe.

So that's why it's troublesome, as we have to channel more crop, and there's an added cost to that so at the end of the day, some of these products I just am not able to use.

Is BT corn among those products?

It is different in different regions of the country. Now for me, the BT corn that is available today is approved in Europe as well. So it is not a lot of extra trouble for me other than like a lot of other new tools or new technologies, there are some specific rules. And the primary one for BT corn is the refuge area. And what that has to do with is called IRM or Insect Resistance Management.

And what that means is, the university entomologists as well as the scientists from the seed industry and the technology companies have gotten together and said, you know, we want to make sure that we don't get resistant corn borers and then this technology is not useful anymore, and this tool won't work for me anymore.

So they have determined that if you have a refuge area-it is 20% for us. So what that means is, we have to plant 20% non-BT corn within a half a mile of a field of BT corn. So what that does is that allows the corn borers to breed in the conventional corn and then intermingle, and that will work as far as preventing resistant corn borers from developing for a long time.

Do you think that's a good idea?

That's a good idea because I think it's showing that the industry and agriculture, if you will, is being responsible in that we want to make sure-you know, we don't want resistant anything, for that matter, as far as creating a pest that you worry about resistance in, and then, "now how do we control it" type thing.

It's just like with a lot of the chemicals that we have used for plant protection, in insecticides as well as herbicides in the past. You never use the same product year after year after year, because you get weed resistance if you do. And it's the same deal with BT corn, and that's what the refuge does, it gives us that kind of protection and helps us.

So the IRM plan helps farmers?

What we have to realize as farmers is that what we really need help with is information, and that's where National Corn Growers Association as well as the seed industry can really help is with the information flow to farmers, as we have new tools in the toolbox for production. We also need to know what those specific rules are. In this case, we've talked about Insect Resistance Management. With another product, it may be a specific herbicide we're able to use or not use, and we need to know what those rules are, and it is our responsibility to play by those rules, and a good thing is, that's what U.S. EPA, and USDA and FDA have said: "We have specific rules that we want you to play by," and that's what will help us environmentally as well as other aspects like the resistance area.

And we have to prove that it's a serious matter, that we do play by the rules. We have to show that we can play by the rules, for the Europeans as well as for our other customers as we have new products. I have Europeans ask me about Insect Resistance Management, and are we using that. And the thought is, why is that important to someone in Europe whether we have insect resistance in the United States or not? And what they're really asking is: Can U.S. agriculture play by the rules? And that's why it is very important to us in agriculture to show the world that we are playing by the rules and we can. We're actually doing a survey every year now by an independent third party, to find out how we're doing, as far as playing by the rules, and those reports are sent to the EPA, and we're getting very high marks now. We're getting up into the 90th percentile and above, and of course we'd like to get a hundred percent, but it's improved dramatically over the past three or four years.

Do you think that the Europeans are waiting for us not to play by the rules?

Well, I think the extremist groups look for any way that they can to attack production agriculture. They always have and they always will, and it's something that we just have to continue to do-to prove ourselves, and we have. We've been successful in that, and it doesn't come without effort and we're continuing to do that.

Do you use the BT corn plant?

We don't plant very much actually here. Like I mentioned, in our hybrid selection we're taking a look at it. Also we looked at the 2001 crop year. We did have higher corn borer numbers, so then it is more likely that we would have higher numbers in 2002 as well. So that was another reason for us to go ahead and plant a little higher percentage of BT corn, because there is a cost involved, and the important thing to remember is that farmers won't plant anything that doesn't make economic sense.

There was a Bentbrook study done that said that farmers were losing money on BT corn, which was absolutely ridiculous because they were trying to say that farmers couldn't make economic decisions, and we do. A lot of the hybrids we don't use. We don't even consider some BT corn, because at that cost there won't be a return on it.

But we did have a couple new hybrids this year we wanted to take a look at,and we thought we would also take a look at the BT protection. So we planted probably around only about 5 to 10% BT corn on our acres.

How did that fit into your operation mix?

The way it fits in is, we go through the process of figuring what particular traits in corn hybrids are going to work on maybe the part of the fields that are a darker, more productive, high organic matter soils, and that's what we will use there. And where we have maybe some hills and maybe some timber soil, a different set of hybrids will work over there.

And we do the same thing with the BT corn. We have maybe one area where it looks like we could have higher corn borer pressure, and that's where we might use the BT corn. As well, we plant some corn following soybeans in a rotation, some corn following corn, and there are different characteristics of that corn plant that are more important.

For example, in corn following corn we need a better root system because there could be corn root worm issues or other insect issues that we do not have on corn following soybeans. So that's how we fit it into our mix. Some farms we may keep completely segregated in case there is an opportunity for a biotech-free market, which we have not seen actually in my particular area but there's always that chance, and we do have on-farm storage so we can separate that corn off.

So does this give you a good mix economically?

Well, we hope so, because sometimes you never really know until maybe October or November after harvest, because Mother Nature keeps agriculture in perfect science, if you will, because we're trying to predict, and the way we do it is we try to minimize risk. We actually have to start planning in November what we're going to plant in April, but we really won't know how we really did until September, October, November, so then you adjust for the next year. So that is kinda how we make it work.

Can you describe the damage done by the European corn borer?

Well, what it does to the corn plant is actually the larva of the corn borer, in that part of its lifecycle, will tunnel. The eggs are laid on the leaf. They will crawl around on the leaves and eat on the leaves, and tunnel through the midrib of the leaves sometimes. But the real damage is done when they tunnel into the stalk itself, and they interrupt the flow of nutrients, the arteries of the plant, if you will, as the sugars and starches flow from the root, getting the nutrients up through the plant and into the ear and to the kernel, and they'll interrupt that. Plus when they tunnel in, it also then creates a place for diseases to get into the plant and it makes the plant less healthy, more prone to wind damage that can lead to harvest problems, as well as premature death, as we saw, to some of the ears themselves. Then when it dies prematurely, it's a lighter test weight, and the bottom line is a lower yield and a lower quality product as well.

How protect your crop from the corn borer before BT corn was available?

The only choice we had at that time was to scout the fields, to walk through them this time of year-which isn't always fun to do when it's hot, and there's a lot of pollen and you get dust, and all that-but it's just part of what we do in the scouting process. So you scout, and then the only choice was, if you have an economic threshold of corn borer, then you spray. And the chemicals you use are very toxic. It's expensive, because you generally would have to get an airplane to do the spraying for you, because the corn's too tall to go through with ground equipment.

And then the problem that we have is, normally if you have to treat once for corn borer, you generally will have to treat twice, because when you spray with chemicals, you kill basically all the insects that are there-the beneficial insects as well as the target pests that you're going for-so when you eliminate the beneficial insects, when re-growth occurs, or more insects come in, and they will be the corn borer in this case, they don't have any natural predators there, so it's very likely you'll be treating a second time. Not very likely you'd treat a third time, but a second time.

It's really more dramatic in the cotton industry where for their pest they used to spray cotton 13-14 times and now with the BT cotton they spray it once or twice.

Is that method more labor intensive?

It is very labor intensive, because it takes a lot of time to scout, which we now scout anyway, but we don't have to be quite as specific now, because another key issue on the corn borer is timing, because you have to do your treatment while that little worm is still out on the leaves. Once he tunnels into the stalk it's too late. He's done his damage or he's doing his damage and you can't get the chemical to kill him into the stalk. You have to get 'im, if you will, while they're on the leaf and you only have about a four- or five-day window to do that.

Have you used the organic BT spores?

No, we have not.

Is there more of an adjustment problem with organic?

Well, the organic spores, I'm not really familiar with how they use those, because they don't use them a lot in this particular area because of the lower incidence of corn borer. I'm not sure how good a control they would get with that, whether it was really good or not-I'm really not familiar-but I know they have other problems. They have more insect pressures as well as a lot more weed pressure, because they're not using any of the plant protection products that I use to protect my corn and provide a higher quality product.

What would you say to those of the opinion that the environmental effects of GMO's are negative?

I would say that they're exactly wrong when they're trying to say that they're hurting us environmentally, because one of the things we have to remember and we need to talk more about is that these products, the transgenic products, will go through much more scrutiny, much more regulation, which is fine because we're able to prove, show our customers that these products are safe. The biotech products have been on the shelf, have been out there for 17-18 years now and we've not had one, not one health issue with any of the biotech products. And that's a good thing and we need to talk more about that.

But then also once they have been approved, BT corn for example, I'm able to protect my crop without spraying chemicals. There's been a huge reduction in the amount of very toxic chemicals that have had to be not only produced but then also sprayed out into environment. So it's much more environmentally friendly to go after a target pest and be that much more specific than to use the traditional method. It's just a better way, a more environmentally friendly way, because say if I had to spray around my house with my kids here, or I had a neighbor, if I'm next to a development, I don't want to be spraying a toxic chemical next to my home or anybody else's home for that matter, and then we also would put up signs to say you can't return to the field for a certain number of days after you spray. If you're able to use BT corn, in this case, you're able to control the pest and you don't have to worry about those chemicals.

How do you suggest we educate people about GM organisms?

Well, the term genetically modified organisms, it's very unfortunate that that's the one name that actually got traction, and that's what everybody calls biotech products, because we've been doing genetic modification in corn, for example, in a very intensive way since the 1950s as we do hybridization. That's what it's all about; it's about pulling traits out of this corn, modifying them, and putting them together to get higher yielding or higher value or a higher quality product. We've been doing that for years. And that is genetic modification; that's what we've been doing.

Also with the traditional process, you get many more mutants that you have to make sure that you're able to destroy. Through the transgenic process, it's much more precise and you can do specific things, for example control the corn borer, and also there are some herbicide resistance traits out there now. You can be very precise and use those, and at the end of the day you provide a high quality product using less chemicals, and it has to be more economic or it won't last. I mean that's the bottom line. Economics will be the final driver as far as whether it will work on my farm or not work on my farm.

So, you're right, we need to get much more education out there as far as the whole process, what it really means, what a GMO really is, and how the process works and why we use it.

Because another issue with BT corn, in some parts of the country, they have a serious problem with mycotoxins and other storage-related molds because they have a lot of insect damage in their corn. With BT corn, they eliminate most of that insect damage, so you have much less incidence of mycotoxins that are serious problems.

Are many farmers in your area using BT corn?

It kind of varies. What we actually saw, back in 1996, '97, '98, was that most farmers wanted to try some of the new technology, some of the newest, latest and greatest stuff. And so the numbers shot up pretty high, as far as almost everybody was trying some. And then it gets to be an economic thing. The seed is more expensive, and for some folks, once they tried it, if you don't have corn borer pressure the yield is basically going to be the same, be it BT corn or conventional corn, so a lot of farmers would quit, didn't continue using BT corn.

And then you get into years where you do have a higher incidents of corn borer. Then the following year you'll see more people will use some BT corn to get themselves that protection. Most really are about like I am, and they'll plant 5 to 10%, and you can actually see that in the sales numbers. In the 2001 crop year about 26% of the U.S. corn crop was planted to biotech products, and this year it's going to go up a little bit, probably. We're estimating 30%, or some, even up to 32%.

That's just for corn?

That's corn.

How about soybeans?

Soybeans is another issue. Roundup-ready soybeans is the product we're talking about. It works very well. It is approved. They are approved in Europe, so they're approved worldwide. They have been widely accepted because Roundup is a good product that really works on a broad spectrum of weeds. It has gotten very expensive to try and control weeds in soybean fields through the chemicals we've had in the past, and now with Roundup it's a more economical program, so it's been widely accepted, and probably in my area 90% of the soybeans are Roundup-ready beans.

How do you plan the crops you'll plant?

The IRM, Insect Resistance Management refuge area plan is something that you have to actually start when you're buying your seed, so you have to figure it out then. We all sit down and say, okay, this field is going to be corn. Okay, I'm going to put some BT corn here. This field right next to it, or say the south end of this field, I'm going to put my refuge.

So you actually start that in your planning stage, about six months ahead of time and then, what is helpful is most of the seed catalogs now have an IRM logo, so they help me identify what particular hybrids need the refuge area next to them, and so you include that in your buying process, in your plan, when you start the year.

And then when you get the seed, get it in your shed, the logo is also on the seed bag and the BT corn is identified. A lot of companies use a different color. If they don't have a different color bag they have a different colored seed tag. And then what we do when we plant is we'll plant one side of the field to the BT corn and then when we run the planter dry, why then we go to the non-BT refuge and plant that, and then you go onto the next field.

So there is a requirement for a certain number of rows of non-BT corn?

The way we do it in our field is called a "block system." If I have a hundred-acre field that I'm going to plant, the maximum I can plant in that field, let's say if I'm going to do my block refuge, is 80 acres because I need my 20% refuge. So it really doesn't matter. We'll either plant the 20% refuge first and then we'll finish the field with BT corn, or we'll do it the other way. We'll plant the BT corn first, then the refuge.

There is another way that you can do it. It's called a "strip method," and I can take my planter and say, for example, if I have a 16-row planter I can plant 12 rows of BT corn and then put in four rows on one end with the non-BT corn. And what that does is, you plant the field then you have eight rows together in a strip of non-BT corn and some people do it that way. It just depends on the farmer's situation, which is a good thing.

We've tried to create these programs to be farmer-friendly, so a farmer has some choices, because the better you can do that then the more likely it is the farmers really will plant the refuge and they do.

Is that voluntary, or how is it monitored?

It is not voluntary. It's a mandatory program.

The 20% refuge it's a mandatory thing. The EPA is directed. In the registration and re-registration of BT corn, this is what is required. So it is not voluntary. It is mandatory. Now the way they will monitor that is they're doing it actually through a couple of ways, and the primary way right now is through a survey to farmers.

Because what we've been able to show as far as American agriculture and farmers, once they know the rules and what they are supposed to do, farmers do follow those rules. It is important to protect the technology and farmers realize that.

But what they have talked about doing, if there are some problem areas, is actually doing some spot checks. They really haven't done that yet, but that's something that could happen. They're doing it primarily through the surveys, and one of the first places, the way they could do it would be to actually check with the seed industry records as far as what is being sold in an area. Are they selling in an area say that has a lot of corn borer pressure and BT corn is planted heavily that only 80% of the corn or less than 80% is BT corn, and the rest is conventional, is being sold in that area, so that's kind of how they're monitoring it now.

Do you have to buy new BT corn seed every year?

With corn, since the hybridization of corn in the 1950s, we buy new seed for corn every year because with the single cross corns, there's a dramatic jump in yield. You do not keep your old seed to use. So for commercial corn, since the mid-1950's, everybody buys new seed every year.

The only difference is the transgenic or BT corn, in this case, it is more expensive than the conventional corn. Usually it figures out to about $8 an acre more per acre than my conventional corn.

How do you keep up with the latest technology?

Well, that's how we spend a lot of our time when we're not in the fields. You just have to do a lot of reading. Internet is very helpful; every seed company has a website. You can go see what their new products are, as well as the university websites, which are useful.

And then another way we do it we've traditionally done it is by going to field days that seed companies and universities have throughout the summer. This time a year is a good time to do that, just pre-harvest. And then also by looking at a lot of the information after harvest, as far as how the performances has been on particular hybrids, and this goes for conventional as well as BT hybrids. So that's kinda how we keep up on that.

And then also we also have to keep track of the approval process of these products, and that's why we do our "know before you grow" campaign, and the Illinois Corn Growers and National Corn Growers websites are very helpful in that.

Do you have any last words to biology teachers?

Well, I think what people need to understand is, these products, as we move forward, are helping produce a higher quality product at an economical price or they won't last.

We really pride ourselves in agriculture. We provide the least expensive, or in other words, the most economical, the highest quality, most nutritious food supply the world has anywhere. But we're not sitting still. We're trying to continue to improve and we need to do that, because agriculture is competitive, not only within the United States but in the world, and it's a world market now.

And so we have to take a look at new technologies and there will be new technologies to come forward. There are in any industry that you want to talk about, the auto industry, the television industry, computers, anything. And we need to take a look at these. We also have a responsibility to make sure they're safe and we're doing that.

The message we need to get out to consumers is, we're continuing always to look for new ways to provide higher quality products, higher value products in some case, but also to provide a better bargain, if you will, to the end user, and we do that with seed. We have a lot of new technology in our harvesting equipment. We went to a new combine because, not just for capacity as far as doing it more economically, but it does a better job, doesn't damage the grain as much.

These new machines-our combine has more computer power than the Apollo spacecraft had, and that is another sign of new technology. And we're going to have that. The unfortunate thing is that some of the extremist groups have gotten hold of this and made it a real political issue and tried to fan the flames of emotion, if you will, with telling a lot of half truths. And I think that's our job as organizations and with the help of the press to get the information out, the right information, and the whole story. We do a lot of scientific review and I think that's needed. We need to hold up the U.S. regulatory system because it has done a good job. The problems they've had in Europe are a perfect example with their food supply, with their blood supply, that we haven't had in the United States-the hoof and mouth issues, the mad cow disease that was a serious concern worldwide.

Well, we were able to keep that out of the United States, and that's because of our regulatory system. Our government agencies really are working pretty well. But they are also working to improve, and we're working with them on some of the new products that are coming to make sure that those assurances are there for the U.S. customer.

We're able to provide food for the U.S. customer to where they only spend 10%, or actually a little less, of their dollar for food. That means that American society has extra money to spend raising their families, buying a nicer home, buying the second car, buying a boat, doing whatever they want to do, buying stocks. And so we really are having a dramatic effect on all of American society, and I think that's a good thing, and these products are going to help us continue down that path.

Is GM BT corn safe?

I definitely think it is safe, because BT corn has been around for a number of years now, and as yet, as I mentioned earlier, we've had biotech products out there on the shelf for 17-18 years and we've yet to have one health issue with any of the biotech products. And I think it is important that we do have extra scrutiny in the regulatory system. We do have that in place to provide those assurances for the world customer.

I think we need to have that review. We have extra scrutiny and the regulatory systems of the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, are taking a look. They're trying to keep it very transparent so that everybody has input into these. But we also have to remember once we have things, scientific reviews, and have things science-based, we have to rely on the science, because the scientific reviews have been accurate in the past, they have worked, and we can't toss them aside just because some groups want to try and fan those flames of emotion and get people all excited about things that just actually are not there.

So these products, we don't know if they're safe as they come along until they go through the review, and that's why we have our scientific review. The issue with BT corn-it's been around. It has been proven safe. It helps us provide a higher quality product, and I think that's important, and it's important that we get that message out that we're doing that.

Your corn product goes where?

Our corn can go a number of different ways where we're located. The majority of my corn today goes to ethanol production, also the co-products of ethanol productions, which is corn feed, but also it may be used for corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup or actually corn syrup that's used in pancake syrup. The high fructose is more for artificial sweeteners. Other products-there are a whole host of those that are produced.

So it may be used in a whole array of those products, and so it may stay in the domestic market, it may be in the worldwide or overseas market, be it Japan, be it Europe, be it Mexico, as raw commodity corn or as processed goods. So from where we're located, we have to make sure that what we plant is accepted worldwide, because it can end up anywhere.


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