Down on the Biopharm

Karen Charman

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The GMO contamination issue is about to get a lot more dangerous with the introduction of transgenic crops that produce pharmaceutical and industrial compounds. Some of the products being tested include a protein for an experimental AIDS vaccine, herpes treatments, contraceptives and cancer drugs. Since 1991, more than 300 field trials of such crops have taken place in the open environment, most over the past three years. Corn, which is wind pollinated and therefore spreads its traits easily, is the crop of choice for biopharming.

While land-grant universities are working with pharma crops on their premises, it’s difficult to know exactly what they are doing. Biotech companies also contract with individual farmers to grow pharma crops. To grow the plants in the open environment, farmers must have permits issued by the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). But the USDA won’t reveal the exact location of biopharming test plots or, in most cases, what compound the plants are engineered to produce. This information is considered “confidential business information.”

In July, Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of environmental and consumer groups, released a meticulously researched report by Friends of the Earth policy analyst Bill Freese outlining the risks that biopharming poses to consumers, farmers, food manufacturers and the environment. Transgenic contamination of food crops and the potential for dangerous health consequences like allergic reactions or the creation of toxic substances in the food top the list.

Last autumn, the issue came to a head when food manufacturers made public their concerns about food crops being used for biopharming. In response, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade association and lobbying group, put out a short-lived voluntary policy announcing that their members would not be permitted to grow pharma crops in the heart of the corn belt. But after pressure from Iowa politicians complaining that their state should not be excluded from the opportunity to take part in a potentially huge economic bonanza, BIO rescinded its policy.

In November, federal regulators announced that the Texas-based company ProdiGene had contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans destined for the food supply with pharmaceutical corn the company had grown in the same field the previous year. The contamination occurred when corn plants sprouted from seed left in the field. Although APHIS inspectors saw the corn plants and told the farmer to remove them before the soybean field was harvested, that didn’t happen.

The pharma corn was harvested along with the soybeans and sent to a grain elevator in Aurora, Nebraska, where it was mixed in with 500,000 bushels. ProdiGene was fined $250,000 and had to assume liability for the $3 million worth of soybeans that had to be destroyed. Two months earlier, ProdiGene had to burn 155 acres of a neighbor’s corn crop in Iowa because of suspected contamination of that corn from pollen from the company’s pharma corn.

In September, the Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidelines advising biotech companies what to include in their pharma crop permit applications. Although FDA “strongly recommends” that biotech companies have tests available that can detect the presence of a pharma crop transgene in the raw food crop, the agency doesn’t require it. Without those tests, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to catch biopharm contamination of food or feed crops.

“This technology moves so fast,” says Theresa Podoll of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, “it’s almost impossible to keep up with.”

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