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2-Plants: After Bt contamination, Iowa farmer not sold on BIO pharm policy

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TITLE:  After Bt contamination, Iowa farmer not sold on BIO pharm policy
SOURCE: CropChoice, USA, by Robert Schubert
DATE:   Nov 7, 2002

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

(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 

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 

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 

* 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:// 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 

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


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