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


Biopharming touted as good idea for Iowa; some fear big risks

(Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- James Q. Lynch, Cedar Rapids Gazette, 01/06/03: Hoping to make Iowa's "Fields of Opportunity" a reality, Iowa lawmakers are likely to consider legislation to help farmers earn better profits by turning their fields into living factories. Crops planted would produce chemicals for industrial use and drugs that offer better treatments, perhaps even cures for a variety of diseases.

Gov. Tom Vilsack and some legislative leaders are touting "biopharming" -- the production of corn and soybean plants genetically engineered to contain pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals -- as an opportunity for farmers and Iowa to tap a lucrative market. That, they say, could smooth the bumpy farm economy and keep farmers on their land and out of bankruptcy court.

The price could be steep if it comes at the cost of Iowa's traditional crops, as well as organics and crops Iowa farmers raise for specialty markets, others warn. They are calling for regulations that will protect both the genetically modified crops and Iowa's bread-and-butter corn and soybeans.

"I think farmers understand this is a big step up from regular GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) like Bt beans," said corn and soybean farmer Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, who will chair the Senate Agriculture Committee when the Legislature convenes Jan. 13. "They think we need better protection.

"However," he added, "farmers think that if we're not careful, we'll let this golden opportunity slip through our fingers."

Mount Vernon seed corn producer Laura Krouse hopes Iowa farmers cash in on "biopharming" opportunities, but she doesn't have to look far to see problems associated with genetically modified crops.

In 2001, transgenic pollen from genetically modified crops near her once-organic corn caused the loss of half her seed corn sales for the 2002 crop.

"I'm just trying to keep going," Krouse said. "I've lost about half of my customers, so I have to create a new market."

Like Krouse, who teaches biology at Cornell College and understands the promise of biopharming, Democratic Rep. Mark Kuhn, a Charles City farmer, worries that turning plants into drug factories could threaten food supply safety.

"If we are going to feed the world, then we have to ensure the safety of the food supply and ensure the world that we can prevent contamination," Kuhn said. "The perception is that you could have drugs in your cornflakes."

Contamination problems brought to light by the Aventis StarLink and ProdiGene cases confirmed Krouse's worries that federal guidelines don't offer adequate protection.

So Krouse is working with a group of Iowans to draft legislation creating an indemnity fund to reimburse farmers for losses caused by biopharming.

As proposed, the fund would collect a fraction of a cent on every bushel of corn and beans sold in Iowa to raise about $5 million a year, Krouse said. Producers of identity-preserved crops who suffer losses caused by pollen drift or other problems could be reimbursed. They could get up to 90 percent of the difference between the price they could have received for the identity-preserved crop and the price they receive after the damage.

"It would be open to the people raising the biopharm crops, too," Krouse said.

Kuhn has some reservations with that approach.

"The obvious problem," Kuhn said, "is why should farmers pay for a problem they didn't create? Where is the industry in this?"

Although the issue "really is on the front-burner right now," Rep. Jack Drake, R-Lewis, who will chair the House Agriculture Committee, favors waiting for federal standards.

"We don't want to preclude farmers from making more money with new crops, but we want to keep our food supply safe," he said.

Those rules haven't worked, according to Kuhn, because they are full of "shoulds" rather than mandates.

He agrees with Krouse that for most farmers, profit opportunity has been overstated.

"There's a lot of money to be made by the companies which invent" the specialty crops, Krouse said. "But I don't see how very many farmers could handle growing those crops. That's not most farmers."

"There will be very few farmers growing these crops on very few acres and they will be selected by the companies who hold the patents."