E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


After Bt contamination, Iowa farmer not sold on BIO pharm policy

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Iowa farmer Laura Krouse lost business because of genetically engineered corn.

"My story is the canary in the coal mine," says Krouse, who grows heirloom seed corn. "In the scheme of all the corn grown in Iowa, my population is microscopic, but the kinds of problems that have hurt me give us a preview of the economic and environmental consequences that could happen on a large scale."

Her concern about genetic contamination extends beyond the first generation of insect- and herbicide-resistant plants to the next stage of agricultural biotechnology -- bio-pharming. She doubts that a recent trade association agreement to segregate pharmaceutical corn will keep food and feed crops free of contamination.

In 1988, Krouse, a biology professor at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, bought a farm from a family who had raised a variety of open pollinated corn for almost a century. Now, in addition to organically growing vegetables for 70 families each week on 5 acres, she selects and grows the Abbe Hills seed corn. More than half her customers were organic dairy farmers who used it to grow highly digestible feed for their cows.

That was the past.

Krouse lost half her business after some of her crop samples tested positive for the presence of an insecticidal bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), engineered into the DNA of corn plants. The genetically modified organisms (GMOs) probably arrived in her field through cross-pollination with nearby varieties. Bt corn accounts for about one-quarter of U.S. corn acreage.

Although she doesn't blame neighbors who might grow Bt corn, Krouse draws the line there. Beyond that lie corn varieties designed to produce prescription drugs and industrial chemicals.

She tried to learn a bit about the open-field testing of so called pharm crops. She wanted to know who was growing them and where. But Iowa and U.S. Department of Agriculture authorities had few answers. They informed her that the bio-pharming companies keep such information confidential, even DNA data needed to develop methods of detecting stray pharmaceutical proteins.

It was during a candidate's forum that she learned of the Horan brothers. The two successful Iowa farmers had contracted with Meristem Therapeutics to test a one-acre plot of corn engineered to produce gastric lipase for the treatment of digestive problems in patients with cystic fibrosis.

At that point, the demands of teaching and farming pulled her away from research into pharm crop field tests.

A lot can change in almost a year. Recent events illustrate that bigger players share Krouse's concerns about drug contamination of the food supply. Food processing companies are gearing up to fight the bio-pharming segment of the biotechnology industry over the issue, according to a story in the Tuesday, Nov. 5 edition of The Wall Street Journal.* They want to avoid consumer anxiety and prevent expensive recalls. Using only non-food plants such as tobacco to manufacture drugs is the surest way to do that, they say. But bio-pharming companies prefer to use corn, canola, potatoes and tomatoes because genetically modifying them to produce novel proteins is relatively easy and cheap.

The legal and monetary implications are perhaps what pushed the dozen or so bio-pharming members of Biotechnology Industry Organization into an agreement to avoid planting their corn in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, as well as parts of Nebraska and five other major corn-producing states during the 2003 crop year.

Krouse is one of a number of critics who say the new policy, though a positive first step, fails to address the problem. They cite a number of shortcomings:

  • The Organization's member and non-member companies, which are not subject to the voluntary planting ban, have conducted more than 300 field trials of pharmaceutical corn and other crops over the past 11 years in corn-producing regions. Given the confidential nature of the tests, contamination may already have occurred without anyone knowing.
  • Farmers grow corn on more than 20 million acres in 30 states not covered by the policy.
  • The policy relies on self-regulation with BIO having no legal authority to enforce the policy on members.

"Rather than let a biotech industry trade group write its own voluntary policies, which apply only to companies that happen to belong to it, are voluntary and not enforceable, and do not cover most areas of the country, the government should set tough, mandatory standards to control the use of this risky technology by all biotechnology companies everywhere in the country," according to the environmental organization Friends of the Earth.

Meristem Therapeutics is one case that perhaps illustrates their concerns. It was not listed in the membership section of the BIO website, http://www.bio.org when this reporter checked in late October.**

"The fact that Meristem is not registered as a BIO member seems an administrative problem only. Meristem is directly and actively involved in the Bio-PMP Group [Plant Made Pharmaceuticals]," a spokesperson said. Senior executives could not be reached for comment.

BIO spokesperson Lisa Dry confirmed the French biotechnology company's membership, which, in light of the voluntary, one-year BIO pharm policy, means the company will have to move its field tests elsewhere. But exactly where is unclear.

"Regarding our future productions, Meristem will have to take the decision of their localization in the next few months only," the company spokesperson said. "We want to take sufficient time for this strategic decision, and can't say, for the moment, the result of the final decision."

The Horan brothers, the farmers who grew the Meristem lipase corn, would not return calls about their future pharming plans.

The BIO policy is solid, said Dry: "It was discussed for months and 100 percent consensus was reached. I think peer pressure is what will enforce the policy. A company could be removed from BIO" if it were to break ranks.

Laura Krouse isn't convinced.

Whether used to make plants resistant to pests or turn them into drug factories, genetic engineering benefits mostly agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies, she says.

"I think the biotech industry is going to make a ton of money in a short period of time," she says. "When we find that the products don't work because of pest resistance or have bad environmental and human health consequences, they'll bail out and we'll be left holding the bag."

*Food, Biotech Industries Feud Over Plans for Bio-Pharming, Wall Street Journal, http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=1090

**Meristem was still not listed on BIO membership rolls on November 1, and again on November 6.