The Three Mile Island of Biotech?
How scary? Britain's Royal Society has expressed concerns about allergic reactions that could result from ingesting, inhaling or even touching biotech crops, while a new study by GE Food Alert, a coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups, details scientists' concerns about the prospect that eating crops containing biopharmaceuticals could weaken the immune system.
No one, not even the top scientists with the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, can say with absolute certainty that the Iowa and Nebraska incidents are the only cases in which experimental pharmaceutical crops have jumped the fence from test plots and mixed with food crops. An expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences this year came to the conclusion that just as residue from more traditional GE cornfields has contaminated neighboring organic fields, so "it is possible that crops transformed to produce pharmaceutical or other industrial compounds might mate with plantations grown for human consumption, with the unanticipated result of novel chemicals in the human food supply."
The potential public health threat creates another threat--the health of American agriculture. Says Iowa State University agriculture professor Neil Harl, "If consumers take on the belief that corn products are being contaminated with products designed for vastly different uses--like HIV vaccines or hepatitis B vaccines or any of a variety of other things that are being discussed--and if they think this contamination poses a threat to them, that's going to create the risk of a negative reaction to corn grown in the United States. And consumers are kings. If consumers start to have doubts about US corn, farm-state economies are going to be in very serious trouble."
That prospect frightens Keith Dittrich, a corn farmer from north of Aurora who has shied away from offers to plant biopharm test plots. "This is being sold to farmers as a new specialty crop that could make them a lot of money," says Dittrich, the president of the American Corn Growers Association. "But if these experiments end up costing farmers markets in Europe or the United States, we could be looking at a short-term profit that turns into a long-term disaster." According to research by the ACGA, US corn farmers have already lost more than $814 million in foreign sales over the past five years as a result of restrictions on genetically modified food imports imposed by Europe, Japan and other countries.
"When it comes to what is being proposed, and what is actually happening with regard to genetic modification of food crops, we're absolutely navigating uncharted waters at a high rate of speed. And we're being pushed to speed up by people with dollar signs in their eyes and no concern whatsoever for farmers or consumers," says Nebraska Farmers Union president John Hansen. "There may be a television program here or an article there about what's happening, but I don't think most Americans have any idea of the extent to which things have been pushed forward without the kind of research and precautions that ordinary common sense would demand."
Biopharming represents the new frontier of biotechnology, where agribusiness meets the pharmaceutical industry to explore a once unimaginable prospect: manipulating the genetic code of plants to induce them to generate AIDS vaccines, blood-clotting agents, digestive enzymes and industrial adhesives. If their initiative works, the corporate promoters of biopharming predict, expensive laboratories and factories will by the end of this decade be replaced by hundreds of thousands of acres growing pharmaceutical corn and soybeans that will allow consumers to realize ProdiGene's promise that you can "Have Your Vaccine and Eat It, Too!" And those corporations will yield huge returns--ProdiGene predicts billion-dollar markets for products it has patented.
The dream of a biopharmed future is still presented as the noble cousin of GE cash-crop schemes. To the extent that Americans discuss genetic engineering, they usually refer to the process by which genes and segments of DNA that do not naturally occur in a particular food crop are added to it in order to make it easier, cheaper and more profitable to raise--such as the splicing of an antifreeze gene from flounder to produce a cold-resistant tomato. Biopharming pushes the limits of genetic engineering to a new plateau, where scientists re-engineer crops to produce drugs that can be extracted from kernels and beans far more cheaply than they can be produced in factories.