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://
www.bio.org 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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