The Three Mile Island of Biotech?
In their race to patent and market pharmaceutical crops, ProdiGene, Monsanto, Dow Chemical and various universities have quietly obtained permission from the USDA to have farmers plant open-air test plots across the United States; on these plots, the corporations are attempting--with some success--to turn corn, soybeans, rice and even tobacco into "plant pharmacies" that can provide edible vaccines for everything from hepatitis B to diabetes. Though biopharming is still in the experimental stage, the experiment has already seen twenty corporations and universities conduct more than 315 open-air field trials in undisclosed locations. These plots have brought thousands of acres--virtually all of them in the vicinity of fields growing traditional food crops--into biopharm production.
The race to the fields has sped up in recent years, in part because the biotech industry has many allies in the Bush Administration and a Republican Congress that prefers "voluntary regulation" by industry to real regulation by the government. And these firms are actively recruited by state officials and university chancellors who believe that a biotech boom could turn Wisconsin or Iowa into a version of Silicon Valley. (ProdiGene was recruited to Texas during George W. Bush's governorship.) As a result, calls for limits on biopharming are often met with cries of "no way" from farm-state politicians.
"Nature is not a pharmaceutical factory. It was never meant to be. But we have reached the point where it may be possible to make it that, and that prospect excites politicians and corporate executives who see this as a new way to make money," says Bill Freese, a policy analyst with Friends of the Earth who wrote GE Food Alert's groundbreaking report on the dangers of manufacturing drugs and chemicals in traditional food crops. "They talk a great deal about the benefits for society. But it's really the economics that attract them. They think they can grow drugs more cheaply and have lower production costs than if they were produced in factories. Also, if a drug goes well, they can just scale up the acres involved in production. If the drug is a bust, they can just fire the farmers."
ProdiGene press releases describe the firm as being "well positioned to capitalize on the opportunities in the large and expanding recombinant protein markets." ProdiGene promotes itself as "the first...company to produce and market a recombinant protein product from transgenic plants," and it maintains a portfolio of ninety current and pending patents--including one to use plants to develop vaccines that can be eaten rather than injected. As a seed company and pharmaceutical industry executive, ProdiGene CEO Laos has for decades preached the bio-utopian "future of farming" gospel. To a greater extent than other biopharmers, he is determined to continue using corn as his company's preferred pharmaceutical plant. "We have looked at many different alternatives, and the best system available today for this technology is corn," he says.
And ProdiGene is getting lots of help. Its research on an edible AIDS drug is funded by the National Institutes of Health, and it recently developed a partnership with Eli Lilly. ProdiGene has collected more permits to initiate biopharm field trials than any other corporation in the United States--eighty-five, while the next most active experimenter, Monsanto, has just forty-four. Half of ProdiGene's permits are for fields in Iowa and Nebraska--the state that, according to the USDA, has been the site of the largest number of open-air field trials. And many of those fields are in Hamilton County, where Laos lived before taking charge of ProdiGene.
Laos has allies in the Corn Belt. In December, after the Nebraska and Iowa incidents, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) backed off a proposal to temporarily stop growing GE drug- and chemical-producing crops in major corn-growing states after the plan encountered noisy opposition from Iowa's Democratic Governor, Tom Vilsack, and other farm-state politicians, who still see biopharming as a boon. Many farmers in Hamilton County have planted test fields at the behest of seed salesmen associated with Laos and ProdiGene. The salesmen offer small premiums--$600 for planting an acre of experimental corn and another $300 for managing it in the year after the experiment is done--along with the promise of bigger bonuses when the biotech train leaves the station. "They tell you: 'Once this gets going, the farmers who are in on it are going to make a lot of money growing these crops,'" says Mike Alberts, an Aurora-area farmer who this year turned down an opportunity to grow a ProdiGene test plot. "Farmers around here have had it hard for a long time, and a lot of them don't want to miss out on something they're calling the future of farming."
Critics of the biotech industry say that the federal agencies that should be strictly regulating burgeoning biopharm experimentation--the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency--are still too busy promoting GE crops as the cure for what ails American agriculture to recognize that they could turn into a curse. The USDA continues to hail GE crops as a boon for farmers, gleefully promoting biopharming with a website that features such headers as: "Animal Urine--A New Source of 'Pharmed' Medicine?" Even now, the agency allows agribusiness firms to withhold details about the nature of their experimental crops and the locations of test plots from the public--including neighboring food farmers--by declaring the data "Confidential Business Information."