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Possibilities of bio-pharming in Colorado

(Monday, March 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- AARON PORTER, The Daily Sentinel, 03/01/03: MONTROSE, Colo. Farmers face many hurdles to sowing genetically altered seeds for the pharmaceutical industry, but some believe it's still worthy of study.

"I think farmers, as a whole, have to find something better than what they're doing, because we're starving ourselves to death," said Lynn Harvey, a farmer at Yellowjacket near the Four Corners area.

Colorado is primed for the emerging industry that uses genetically modified plants to produce compounds for pharmaceutical products, said industry and regulatory officials at an informational meeting this week in Montrose.

"It doesn't look like there will be any of this produced by farmers in Colorado in 2003. We do know that there are farmers that are talking about it with (pharmaceutical) companies, particularly on the Front Range, about producing it in 2004," said Jim Rubingh, director of market division at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Strict federal regulations may be the biggest hurdle for small farms in western Colorado.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the farming of pharmaceutical plants, requiring permits and on-site inspections when they are planted in open fields, said Dr. Margaret Jones, a USDA biotechnologist. It also requires a "safety assessment," and state officials must concur with the USDA's conclusions before planting commences.

But the USDA keeps secret the locations of pharmaceutical crops because of past vandalism, Jones said, and plans never to release its oversight of such plants.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees production of pharmaceuticals from the plant material.

"Corn seems the most likely pharmaceutical crop to be grown in Colorado," said Dr. Tom Holtzer, head of the Department of BioAgriculture, Science and Pest Management at Colorado State University.

The biotechnical industry is searching for appropriate growing sites outside the Corn Belt, where a $3 million soybean crop was contaminated with pharmaceutical corn in Iowa.

Some residents fear genetically altered corn could harm the region's agriculture industry.

Sweet corn is a major component of the local economy, and other crops could be at risk, such as organic foods, reported activist group Uncompahgre Valley Association.

The full impact of pharmaceutical crops is not yet understood, said Dr. Chuck Benbrook, an agriculture industry consultant.

"I think there will be a lot of blind alleys and disappointments as we learn more about how this can be done," Benbrook said.

Genetic materials from pharmaceutical plants are banned from food supplies and livestock feed by the USDA.

The USDA also mandates a one-mile zone of isolation from other corn to prevent contamination with genetically altered material. It also requires a 21-day delay in planting, so genetically altered plants release pollen later.

The mandatory isolation may prevent many farmers from growing the crops, and many high-altitude farms have growing seasons that are too short to delay planting, farmers said.

CSU researchers showed corn pollen from two test plots turned up in surrounding corn plants no further than 600 feet from the source, Holtzer said.

Corn has no wild relatives that can be contaminated by drifting pollen, he said. Its pollen can also be nearly eliminated by removing tassels or making the plants sterile.

Benbrook said there is little knowledge about what genetically modified plants may do to vital organisms in the soil or how they will react in stressed environments such as drought.

"I think it is the height of naivete to think we understand everything that's needed to predict how genetically altered plants are going to behave," he said.

Despite potential drawbacks, genetically modified plants can produce compounds for a number of important pharmaceutical products, including medicines for treating cancer, HIV, heart disease and diabetes.

"It will cost about a quarter to one-half less to produce plant-based pharmaceuticals than it costs to produce from mammalian cell cultures," said Dr. Susan Harlander, president of BIO- rational Consultants Inc.

Genetically modified plants could cut costs and boost access to pharmaceutical drugs, Harlander said. A treatment for rheumatoid arthritis had a waiting list of 13,000 people in March 2002 because of limited-production capacity, which could be boosted by pharmaceutical plants, she said.

However, relatively little cropland is needed to produce pharmaceutical materials. For some drugs, 100 acres would provide material to supply millions of people, Harlander said.

Despite the hurdles aired at the meeting, some Western Slope farmers were still interested in exploring pharmaceutical crops.

Farmers should be able to overcome the tough production requirements, such as cleaning every seed from implements to prevent off-site contamination, said Joe Mahaffey, a Yellowjacket farmer.

"It may be (a viable option) where we are," said Mahaffey.

Aaron Porter can be reached via e-mail at aporter@gjds.com.