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Biotech Industry's "Biopharming" Prospects Fizzle
(Beyond Pesticides, May 25, 2004)
Opposition to the controversial practice of genetically engineering crops to produce pharmaceutical and industrial compounds, also called "biopharming," has been building steadily since 2002, according to a risk profile released yesterday by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). In the latest setback, San Diego-based Epicyte Pharmaceutical, a leading developer of pharmaceutical corn, announced on May 6th it would close its doors. Another blow came in early April, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience a permit to grow 120 acres of pharmaceutical rice in Southern California, a decision applauded by FoE and U.S. PIRG.

"Everyone is against 'pharm crops' - investors, farmers, food companies, consumer groups, even parts of the biotech industry," said U.S. PIRG Environmental Advocate Richard Caplan. "Four years after we found unapproved StarLink corn on supermarket shelves, the federal government should just say no to drugs in our cornflakes."

According to the groups' analysis, privately-held Epicyte Pharmaceutical was shunned by investors who feared the company could not keep its drug-bearing corn from contaminating the food supply with pharmaceuticals not fit for human consumption, raising liability concerns similar to those accompanying the StarLink corn debacle in 2000. Ventria's bid to grow pharmaceutical rice was quashed by the USDA based on similar contamination concerns. Farmers concerned about loss of rice exports to GMO-sensitive Japan lobbied strongly against Ventria's trial. Farmer opposition in Colorado helped stop a 2003 trial of pharm corn by Meristem Therapeutics, a French company.

As detailed in the risk profile, the $500 billion food industry has lobbied aggressively against biopharming ever since Texas-based ProdiGene, Inc's pharmaceutical corn contaminated half a million bushels of soybeans in Nebraska and 155 acres of corn in Iowa in the fall of 2002. These incidents prompted former Kraft Foods CEO Betsy Holden to single out contamination of foods with plant-produced pharmaceuticals as a threat to her company and the food industry as a whole.

There is also a growing scientific consensus against pharm crops. Two committees of the National Academy of Sciences have highlighted the risks of plant-made drugs entering the food supply and endangering human health. The editors of Nature Biotechnology, the biotech industry's leading journal, recently compared pharm crops to a drug company "packaging its pills in candy wrappers or flour bags or storing its compounds or production batches untended outside the perimeter fence."

"There is no doubt that drugs will enter the food supply at some level if the government continues to allow open-air cultivation of pharmaceutical-producing food crops," said Bill Freese, research analyst at FoE and author of a comprehensive study of biopharming. "And let's not forget that these are bioactive compounds, some of which are known to have human health impacts," he added. "One corn-grown drug, the blood-clotting protein aprotinin, has been shown to cause pancreatic disease in animals and also to increase honeybee mortality."

Opponents point to the declining number of pharm crop field trials - from a peak of 42 in 2000 to 6 in 2003 - as further evidence of decline. In October 2003, industry leader Monsanto shut down its pharm crop division, Integrated Protein Technologies. The FDA has not approved a single plant-made pharmaceutical.

"Safe and effective biopharmaceuticals have been produced in contained pharmaceutical factories for more than 20 years with minimal risk to human health or the environment," said Freese. "Plant-based biopharming is not only risky; it doesn't work, and it's not helping anyone."

For more information, contact Bill Freese, Friends of the Earth, 301-985-3011, and Richard Caplan, U.S. PIRG, 202-546-9707.

TAKE ACTION: Protect our land and food from genetically engineered (GE) ingredients and crops. Buy USDA certified organic products. Lobby your supermarket to label GE food. Support local efforts to prohibit growing GE crops (See Daily News articles "Vermont Senate Wants Farmers Protected from Biotech Companies" and
"Mendocino County, CA Bans Growing of Genetically Altered Crops and Animals"). Contact your U.S. Senators and U.S. Representative, U.S.EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt, and USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides' Genetic Engineering Page.