Let’s not succumb to the temptation of biopharming

  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 trials.

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.

Advocates 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.

The 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?

It 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 be eaten.

But tell that to a corn plant.

Corn, 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.

Worried about 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 interesting.

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.

Both my 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.

Patricia Walsh is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She has a master's degree in environmental studies and does natural resource work from Longmont, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.