Western farmers consider the risks and benefits of ‘biopharming’MONTROSE, COLORADO — The fields in this western Colorado valley are once again sprouting a famous local specialty: Olathe Sweet corn. In the two decades since a local breeder first hit on the tender, supersweet strain, the Olathe Sweet brand has boosted farmers’ fortunes and become a large part of this valley’s identity.
This winter, Colorado Department of Agriculture officials announced that some of these cornfields might soon contain something other than Olathe Sweet. Several biotechnology companies, they said, were interested in bringing “pharmaceutical” crops to Colorado. These genetically engineered crops produce proteins that can be used to manufacture vaccines, contraceptives, and other drugs for both livestock and humans.
Though Colorado farmers have grown genetically engineered food crops, such as pesticide-resistant corn, since the early 1990s, they’ve never tried “biopharming.” The biotechnology industry says the crops could mean big economic benefits for farmers. Yet genetically engineered crops have long been controversial, and the prospect of biopharming has taken the debate to a new, more passionate level.
“Biotechnology is the most powerful technology the world has ever seen, bar none,” says Suzanne Wuerthele, an activist with the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club. “Yet it’s being driven by bureaucrats and companies, and it’s being deployed without the public’s knowledge or consent.”