The Three Mile Island of Biotech?
Hamilton County, Nebraska, is where food comes from. You can visit the Plainsman Museum on Highway 14 to learn about "farm life from the 1880s to the 1950s," or you can just drive on up the highway and learn about farm life in 2002 at any of the dozens of family farms that still grow corn and soybeans on fields that some families have worked since their ancestors homesteaded here just after the Civil War. For more than a century, farmers in this fertile stretch of a state where folks still refer to themselves as "cornhuskers" have planted food crops each spring and trucked the harvest in the fall to towering grain elevators on the edge of the bustling Great Plains town of Aurora. Those grains become the cereals, the breads, the cake mixes and the soy patties that feed America and the world.
This fall, however, the predictable patterns of Hamilton County and American food production took on the characteristics of a dystopian science-fiction story. An area farmer, who a year earlier had supplemented his income by quietly planting a test plot with seed corn genetically modified to produce proteins containing powerful drugs for treatment of diarrhea in pigs, this year harvested soybeans for human consumption from the same field. He trucked them off to the Aurora Co-op, where they were mixed with soybeans from other fields throughout the county in preparation for production as food. Just as the soybeans were about to begin their journey to the nation's dinner plates, a routine inspection of the test field by US Department of Agriculture inspectors revealed that corn plants that should have been completely removed were still growing in the field from which the soybeans had been harvested--raising the prospect that the pharmaceutical crop had mingled with the food crop.
Suddenly, as they say in Aurora, all kinds of hell broke loose. In November, USDA investigators swooped into town to order the lockdown of a warehouse filled with 500,000 bushels of food-grade soybeans that had been contaminated by contact with the beans containing remnants of the pharmaceutical corn. Aurora Co-op managers quietly secured the soybeans. But when word of the incident leaked out, Greenpeace campaigners climbed a tall white elevator to unfurl a banner that read: "This Is Your Food on Drugs!" Agitated officials of the Grocery Manufacturers of America expressed "concerns about the possible adulteration of the US food supply." Consumer groups made unfavorable comparisons between the incident in Hamilton County and the last great genetically engineered food debacle, which occurred two years ago when GE StarLink corn that had been approved solely for animal feed turned up in taco shells, chips and other food products.
Biotech industry groups and the government agencies with which they have worked closely to promote the increased use of genetically modified organisms in food crops rushed to assure consumers that all was well. Anthony Laos, CEO of ProdiGene, the Texas biotech company that has made Aurora ground zero for experiments in putting drugs into food, and that faced a possible $500,000 fine and the loss of its testing permit, promised to cover the $2.8 million cost of the contaminated crops. Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service--which has been criticized for lax oversight of pharmaceutical crop experiments, commonly known as "biopharming"--said, "It's isolated, it's in one location, it's not being moved." That same week, however, it was revealed that ProdiGene had been ordered, just two months earlier, to burn 155 acres of corn from an Iowa field where stray biotech plants had "jumped the fence" and contaminated conventional corn crops.
But there is no two-strikes-and-you're-out rule at the USDA. ProdiGene got off with a $250,000 fine and a promise to follow regulations better. The company kept its permit to plant experimental crops, and biotech promoters continue to push for policies that could allow as much as 10 percent of US corn production to be devoted to pharmaceutical crops by 2010. "The future of biopharmaceuticals has simply never been brighter," said Laos. Farm and food activists worry that the events of fall 2002 will be little more than a bump in the road to the brave new world of biopharming.
"This is the Three Mile Island of biotech," says Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, comparing this fall's incidents to the near-meltdown of the Pennsylvania nuclear power plant, which led to a dramatic shift in public attitudes about expansion of that industry. "The biotech industry says that because some soybeans were quarantined at the last minute, no one should worry. Well, at Three Mile Island, they contained things. But that didn't mean it wasn't a crisis, and it certainly didn't mean that people should have said, 'Oh, everything's fine now. Let's just let these guys get back to business as usual.'"
Richie says it's crucial to seize the moment--this is possibly the last chance to prevent the disasters that are all but certain to occur if biotech corporations are allowed to continue on their current course. "This is not the point to back off; this is the point to move very aggressively to get a handle on what is happening, and to control it," he says. "We're at the earliest stage of the attempt to genetically engineer corn plants to make them factories for producing powerful and potentially dangerous drugs, and already we have examples of contamination of food crops. This is scary stuff." [See Mark Schapiro, "Sowing Disaster?" October 28.]