Is it a farm – or is it a pharmacy?

Western farmers consider the risks and benefits of ‘biopharming’

  • A man calling himself "Frankencorn" protests genetically altered crops at the Colorado Capital last month. Gov. Bill Owens later approved the growing of pharmaceutical crops in the state

    CYRUS MCCRIMMON, THE DENVER POST
 

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.”

From the Corn Belt to Colorado

Pharmaceutical crops were first planted outdoors in 1992, and by 2002, there were 38 test sites in 10 states, including Arizona and California. Research moved ahead largely unnoticed until last September, when pollen from pharmaceutical corn in Iowa was thought to have spread to more than 150 acres of nearby food corn. Later that fall, pharmaceutical corn from a test plot in Nebraska was inadvertently mixed with a warehouse full of food-grade soybeans; the soybeans were destroyed before they reached consumers. The company responsible for both incidents, the Texas-based ProdiGene, Inc., was required to pay $250,000 in federal fines and about $3.5 million in cleanup costs.

For biopharming skeptics, the Nebraska and Iowa cases dramatized the technology’s risks. The mishaps, they say, jeopardized not only human health but also farmers’ agricultural markets; both the United States and the European Union have a zero-tolerance policy for pharmaceutical crops in food shipments. “Just one kernel of (biopharmed) corn could throw off the whole shipment,” says David Dechant, a corn and wheat farmer in Fort Lupton, Colo.

Following the ProdiGene fiasco, the agriculture department proposed more stringent rules for open-air plantings, including a mile-wide separation between most pharmaceutical corn and food corn. In October 2002, the industry group BIO announced that its members would look outside the Corn Belt for test sites farther from food crops.

These events were followed by a spate of biotechnology boosterism in the West. In early 2003, state officials in Colorado and Arizona released optimistic reports on the economic future of biotechnology, including pharmaceutical crops. The Colorado Biotechnology Association, a trade organization, recently received a $30,000 grant from the national Council for Biotechnology Information; the Colorado group is using the money to promote biotechnology throughout the state.

In response, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which has the power to accept, reject or amend federal biopharming permits, assembled a technical committee of university researchers and state officials to help analyze any incoming applications. It also organized two meetings, one in Akron, Colo., and one in Montrose, to gauge public opinion on biopharming.

Another boom — and bust?

The meeting in Montrose attracted a lively crowd of well over 100 farmers, environmental activists and other residents. Most questions concerned the environmental and health risks posed by biopharming, and attendees seemed particularly concerned about the secrecy that often surrounds pharmaceutical crops. Because of past vandalism to genetically modified crops, biotechnology companies are not required to release the location of testing sites to the public. Even Colorado state officials would not know the sites’ exact locations.

Some farmers and farmers’ advocates at the meeting cited risks to agricultural markets and other economic concerns. “It’s like the dot-com industry,” says Jennifer Kemp of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “You look at some of these biotech companies and think, ‘Who’s really going to be around in ten years?’ We never seem to learn from the cycle of boom and bust.”

Dave Galinat, the corn breeder who developed Olathe Sweet, also downplays biopharming’s potential economic benefits. Only small plots are required to produce decades’ worth of pharmaceuticals, he points out, so very few farmers are likely to profit. Still, Galinat would like to share in those profits: Last year, he placed an unsuccessful bid with a biotechnology company broker to grow pharmaceutical corn.

ProdiGene has applied for a federal permit to plant pharmaceutical crops in Colorado, but company regulatory affairs officer Donna Delaney says those plans are now on hold. “I’m not at liberty to say why,” she says.

Meristem Therapeutics, a biotechnology company based in France, received federal and state approval for a 30-acre test plot of pharmaceutical corn in Phillips County, Colo. But in mid-June the company announced that the approvals had come to late to plant the corn this year.

Michelle Nijhuis is contributing editor to HCN.

You can contact:

Colorado Department of Agriculture Mitch Yergert, 303-239-4142

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Jennifer Kemp, 303-283-3540

Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter 303-861-8819

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (pewagbiotech.org) strives to be an “independent and objective source” of information about biopharming and agricultural biotechnology in general.

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