It’s hard to take issue with a technology that might have been able to save my parents’ lives. But that’s what I’m going to do.
I’m talking about biopharming, the process that makes
medicine from crops. Take a corn plant or a tobacco plant; inject
it with a protein-making gene from humans or animals; harvest the
crop, then grind it up and take out the proteins used for
pharmaceuticals. Presto-chango, you may have a drug for cycstic
fibrosis or a vaccine for cholera or cancer. None of these
"pharmed" drugs are for sale yet, though many are in clinical
The idea of harvesting medicine from plants is
far from new. Indigenous people around the world have long held
sacred the plants they use for medicinal purposes. They respect the
plants and are grateful to them.
With biopharming, plants
are valuable because they can be manipulated.
say growing pharmaceutical crops will allow mass production of
medicine that’s cheap and also effective. And now Meristem
Therapeutics of France and ProdiGene Inc. of Texas want to field
test biopharming in my state of Colorado.
Farm Bureau backs the idea, stating it will provide a new market
for drought-battered farmers. The Farm Bureau even sets up a
competition: If Colorado doesn’t cash in, another state will.
The larger question is, do we want this in any state?
has been tried in Nebraska and Iowa, with unintended consequences.
Last year in Nebraska, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
quarantined 500,000 bushels of soybeans contaminated by biopharm
corn grown by ProdiGene.
Maybe you don’t drink soy
milk, but I do. The idea that I might drink medicinal proteins is
not appealing, even though some experts say the risk of getting
sick or having a deadly reaction is very small. Yet no one knows
what will happen if people eat these drug-crops. Granted, we are
already eating genetically modified foods whether we know it or
not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that a food
label does not have to tell me if the tomato I buy was genetically
altered to taste better.
But there is a difference
between a genetically modified tomato and biopharm crops.
Genetically modified food crops are tested to see if they are safe
to eat. Pharm crops are not tested because they are not supposed to
But tell that to a corn plant.
the most popular crop for biopharming, is good at spreading its
pollen around, searching for other corn plants in the area such as
the ones destined for my corn chips. The USDA requires a half-mile
buffer zone between pharm crops and crops meant to be eaten by
people or animals. But birds and bees can carry pollen for long
distances. And then there’s that Colorado wind.
Even before biopharming came on the scene, there was Starlink, the
feed corn genetically engineered to produce an insecticide. Three
years ago, some of it ended up in regular corn. Products including
taco shells and chips were recalled, resulting in a billion-dollar
loss for food companies and growers.
similar issues with pharm crops, Greenpeace and Friends of the
Earth say biopharming should either be outlawed or kept inside
greenhouses. Some farmers worry they’ll lose domestic and
foreign markets if people become afraid of their food. Even the
food industry suggests that biopharming should confine itself to
non-food crops, like tobacco. Here’s where things get more
One company, Large Scale Biology of
California, is reportedly creating personalized cancer vaccines in
tobacco for people with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The vaccines
trick the body into destroying cancer cells.
parents were longtime smokers, and both died of lung cancer. The
idea that a vaccine grown in a tobacco plant might have helped them
is enormously appealing. When it comes to tough decisions, our
culture often tries a risk-benefit analysis, and here, the benefits
of pharm crops seem obvious while the risks are hard to pin down.
Some Native Americans take another approach --
considering the impact of a decision on the next seven generations.
It’s a conservative approach, and in this case I think that
level of caution makes sense.
Let’s keep the food
in the fields, and the medicine in non-food crops, tucked safely
inside greenhouses. It might not be the cheapest way in the short
run, but it could save us a mighty cost in the long run.