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BioPharm Soybeans Destroyed After Experimental Genes Get Loose

by Stephen Leahy

on biopharm controversy
(IPS) BROOKLIN, Canada, -- U.S. officials have ordered 500,000 bushels of soybeans, worth $2.7 million, destroyed after the crop was contaminated by maize genetically engineered to produce an experimental drug.

Hundreds of acres of North American fields have been planted with genetically engineered (GE) crops designed to produce various experimental medicines and vaccines that are part of the much-touted 'biopharma' industry, which promises cheaper drugs and big profits for farmers.

Worried about potential contamination of the food supply, the biotech industry announced a voluntary ban last month on growing biopharma products in food producing areas such as the U.S. midwest.

"Nobody wants pharmaceuticals in their corn flakes," said Andrew Baum, CEO of a biotech firm in Canada and head of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) task force that recommended the ban.

But the industry's worst nightmare nearly materialized when soybeans was planted on a Nebraska state field where an experimental biopharma maize was grown the year before. The maize had gone to seed and inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found maize growing among the soybeans early last month.

ProdiGene, a Texas biotech company that produces plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial products, was told to remove the plants. But when inspectors returned a month later, they found that the maize was still there and the field had been harvested, a USDA spokesperson said.

Fortunately all of the soy went to a single storage facility in Nebraska and officials were able to prevent it from entering the human or animal food chains.

The USDA has reportedly refused to reveal the chemical or drug that was genetically engineered in the GM maize.

In another ProdiGene test site, located in the U.S. state of Iowa, regulators forced the company to incinerate 155 acres of maize surrounding the field test site for the same reason: biopharma maize from the previous year's experiments had begun to grow.

ProdiGene faces fines of up to $500,000 if it violated U.S. regulations for experimental field trials of new crops.

"There is just no excuse to allow drug producing crops to be grown out in the fields where they can contaminate the environment and food chain by spreading their genes to wild plants and to conventional crops growing nearby. All GE 'pharm' crops currently out there should be banned and all trials stopped immediately," said Doreen Stabinsky, a science adviser for Greenpeace USA.

America's food industry, rarely in tune with activist groups, seems to agree. "We strongly urge the biotech industry to direct its substantial research capabilities into investigating the use of non-food crops for the development of pharmaceuticals," Karil Kochenderfer of The Grocery Manufacturers of America is reported as saying.

Plantings of biopharma crops should be halted until the federal government imposes tougher regulations to prevent future incidents, the National Food Processors Association declared. "There should be no testing of this kind unless you can get 100 percent confinement and containment. The risk is too high," said Rhona Applebaum, an Association spokesperson.

Neither the United States nor Canada have established strict regulations for growing biopharma crops, despite allowing test plantings of a range of these crops, which contain proteins from animals and humans.

Some of these are designed to produce antibodies for treating diseases such as cancer herpes, Parkinson's and respiratory illnesses. Government rules only propose 400-meter separation distances, two-week delayed seeding and vague statements about identity preservation to keep biopharma products separate from the food supply.

BIO had promised that starting next year its members would not plant certain types of GE maize in the U.S. midwest farm belt or some varieties of GE rape in the Canadian prairies, in a bid to prevent contamination through pollen transfer or accidental mixing post-harvest. The ban could eventually apply to numerous crops and regions.

Some biotech companies are beginning to experiment with non-food crops like tobacco or those that do not readily spread pollen, such as safflower, in an effort to contain contamination of food crops. Others want to use technologies that make seeds sterile..

Advocates say 'biopharming' has tremendous commercial potential. A traditional manufacturing plant for pharmaceutical proteins costs at least $200 million. Baum estimates that using biopharma crops can cut capital costs to about 30 million dollars and reduce production costs from more than $200 a gram to $25.

While no human drug has yet been commercialized using the biopharma process, some are in advanced testing stages. And dozens of corn-growing U.S. farmers earned an extra dollar a bushel this year for planting GE maize with an industrial enzyme.

Industry experts predict that 10 per cent of U.S. maize acres will be seeded in industrial or biopharma varieties in less than 10 years.

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Albion Monitor November 22 2002 (

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