Open-field 'pharma' is targeted

Group urges ban on crops for drug, industrial products.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004

The Union of Concerned Scientists called Wednesday for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban open-field growing of corn, soybeans and other food crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical and industrial products.

The group had convened a panel of academics from top agriculture schools, including the University of California, Davis, who concluded the U.S. food supply is not fully protected against contamination from drug compounds grown in food crops.

"There are many ways that a pharmaceutical crop could get into the food system," said David Andow, editor of the technical report and an entomology professor at the University of Minnesota. "The number of routes is rather sobering."

Seed mix-ups and pollen movement are the main contamination concerns. The upside of the high-tech crops is that they offer a new, and potentially cheaper, way to produce some drug and industrial compounds, including vaccines and enzymes.

Wednesday's science-panel recommendations include limiting "pharma" crops to geographic regions where similar crops aren't grown for food and shifting pharmaceutical production to non-food plants.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, the major biotech trade group in Washington, D.C., said current regulations are working and rejected the idea of a ban on using food crops in the fledgling plant-made pharmaceutical industry.

Cindy Smith, deputy administrator of biotech regulation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the agency is overhauling its biotech plant regulations with the help of more than 100 scientists from six countries.

She did not say whether the agency was considering any type of "pharma" ban.

"We are currently doing a very significant and systematic analysis of all these types of proposals," Smith said Wednesday, adding that it will be several months before the work is done.

Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the USDA has improved its oversight but that it may not be possible to plug all the holes exposed by the science panel unless there is a shift to non-food plants.

"We don't really see that the USDA is going to be able to put together a system of sufficient stringency to truly protect the food supply," she said.

Food crops, particularly corn and soybeans, have properties that make them convenient for companies to engineer for other compounds. Compared to the tens of millions of acres planted in biotech crops resistant to pests or chemicals, the plant-made pharmaceutical industry is tiny. The USDA reports there were about 44 acres of pharma crops planted nationwide in 2004.

The industry could grow rapidly if one or two plant-derived products are a hit. Or, it could shrivel if there is a repeat of a 2002 incident in which "pharma" corn was found growing in a Nebraska soybean field.

Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said pharmaceuticals can be safely grown in food crops under existing guidelines.

"This report appears to have been created in a vacuum, ignoring the reality of existing risk management practices already established by USDA (that) are working," Dry said. "There is not a scientific reason to say that one plant should not be used."

Plant-made pharmaceuticals have become an issue in California, where earlier this year Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience planned to increase open-field production of human proteins in rice.

After a controversy about the adequacy of its safeguards, the company announced in November that it is moving to Missouri.

Wednesday's report and related policy recommendations echoed several themes explored in Seeds of Doubt, the Bee's special report about biotech crops in June. Those issues include the difficulty of containing biotech genes, regulatory lapses and the challenges of assessing biotech crops because companies often withhold key information.

The Union of Concerned Scientists historically has taken a critical view of biotech plants, but Mellon said Wednesday that she thinks "pharming" has great potential under the right conditions.

The organization, based in Cambridge, Mass., selected panel scientists and paid them $2,500 each to work on the project. It said the report was developed solely by the scientists and their work was reviewed by their peers.

Davis agronomy professor Paul Gepts, one of six authors of the technical report, could not be reached Wednesday. Other authors are from Iowa State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Illinois and a private agriculture consulting firm in Iowa.

The scientists' report is available at www.ucsusa.org.

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