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Bio-pharming: Is cure worse than disease?

(Friday, May 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --

By dcarman@denverpost.com
By Diane Carman, Denver Post Columnist
Thursday, May 01, 2003 - It's a deal with the devil, and you probably don't even know that you've made it. Wheat, soybeans, canola, corn and many other food crops are being genetically engineered to improve productivity and increase profits.

It's no big deal, proponents say. For eons, plant hybrids have been developed to improve taste, appearance and yields. Genetic modification simply speeds that hybridization process.

Sure, people around the world call it "Frankenfood" and react with revulsion, but the folks at Missouri agriculture giant Monsanto and Dow Chemical say we shouldn't worry, it's safe.

The most common gene-tweaked plants are grown under the trademark "Roundup Ready." This means their DNA has been altered so that they can be treated with Monsanto's best-selling weedkiller, Roundup, and not die.

They've become ubiquitous, said Peter Crowell of the Uncompahgre Valley Association in Montrose. "You and I are probably Roundup Ready by now."

But Roundup Ready is just the beginning. The brave new world of genetic engineering goes way beyond manipulating crops to make them bigger, hardier or resistant to disease.

The next big thing is bio-pharming. And it may be coming soon to a cornfield near you.

Two companies, ProdiGene Inc. of Texas and Maristem Therapeutics of France, have approached Colorado farmers about growing genetically altered corn to produce proteins and enzymes for use in the production of insulin and other pharmaceuticals.

Jim Miller, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said he expects to receive an application "before too long" from Maristem to produce the pharmaceutical corn crop in eastern Colorado.

The exact location is a secret.

While the likelihood of the bio-pharm crop getting in the ground in time for the 2003 growing season is diminishing with each day, the anxiety of farmers across the state has spread like ragweed pollen on a stiff wind.

Bio-pharming threatens the livelihood of every farmer, said David Dechant, who raises corn, wheat, alfalfa and barley near Hudson. "Our export customers as well as food processors like Kraft and others have said they have zero tolerance for the drug corn. One kernel in an entire shipment will disrupt the export supply and cripple the industry," he said.

Doug Wiley, an organic farmer 20 miles east of Pueblo, agreed.

"The idea that they can contain this is ridiculous," he said. "Corn is very promiscuous. Gene drift will happen. I guarantee it."

USDA regulations require that pharmaceutical crops be planted no closer than one-half mile from plants grown for human or animal consumption - a measure considered laughable by farmers and biologists.

You have to wonder, they say, if anybody has told the USDA about the birds and the bees.

Jane Bock, a professor of plant ecology and evolution at the University of Colorado, said a conservative estimate of the typical range for corn pollen would be "a few miles." All it takes is a flock of crows or a few insects landing in the field to disperse it widely.

Add to that the likelihood that farm machinery, farmers, dogs and assorted wildlife would have contact with both crops, and the notion of containing the genetic material on one corner of fertile Mother Earth is absurd.

Last year, farmers in Iowa and Nebraska discovered just how preposterous it is.

In Iowa, 100 acres of contaminated cropland were quarantined after a ProdiGene test went awry. In Nebraska, 500,000 bushels of soybeans had to be destroyed when errant bio-pharm corn turned up in the crop.

That's one reason the bio-pharming industry became interested in drought-plagued Colorado. It's no longer welcome in Iowa and Nebraska.

Even if state officials are willing to take a chance on bio-pharming, the agricultural community is deeply skeptical.

"How do you get compensated when your customers lose faith in your product?" Wiley asked. "Who is going to be liable when we lose our markets?"

Those are questions Dechant already has had to face.

Two years ago, when StarLink genetically modified feed corn found its way into tortillas sold to Taco Bell, corn growers got slammed.

The tortillas were deemed unfit for human consumption. People who ate them were at risk for potentially fatal allergic reactions.

Corn prices plummeted.

"We lost more than 100 million bushels a year in exports," Dechant said. He figures his share of the $110 million settlement to injured farmers will amount to "maybe a dollar or two per acre. And the export market may never recover."

For farmers, "it's really scary," Crowell said. "It needs to be studied carefully.

"And it needs to be studied before anybody lets the genie out of the bottle."