PANNA: Action Alert: Biopharm Corn Contaminates Food Crop


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Action Alert: Biopharm Corn Contaminates Food Crop
November 22, 2002

On November 12, 2002, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that 500,000 bushels of soybeans destined for human consumption had been quarantined due to contamination by corn genetically engineered to produce a pharmaceutical chemical. The corn, genetically altered to make a protein not proven safe for human consumption, was developed by ProdiGene, a leading biopharmaceutical company based in Texas. The biopharm corn was grown the previous season in a test plot in Nebraska; when ordinary soybeans were planted this year in the same field, corn seeds from the test crop sprouted. Although the company was required to remove the volunteer corn plants, it did not do so even after USDA inspectors issued warnings.

The day after the initial disclosure, USDA announced that ProdiGene was also cited for a similar infraction in Iowa earlier this fall. In that case, ProdiGene also failed to remove volunteer corn from last year's biopharm field trial, and USDA fears that these corn plants may have cross pollinated with conventional corn surrounding the field. ProdiGene was forced to destroy 155 acres of conventional corn that may have been contaminated with the firm's biopharm crop.

PAN North America urges you to write or email USDA and ask the agency to enact an immediate moratorium on cultivation, including test plots, of all crops genetically engineered to produce biopharmaceuticals (such as vaccines), industrial chemicals or other substances with potential human health impacts.

In a recent interview, Anthony G. Laos, president and CEO of ProdiGene, while not apologizing for the incidents in Nebraska and Iowa, said that in both cases the corn was genetically engineered to produce a protein that may serve as a vaccine against a viral disease of pigs. He acknowledged that no formal human safety testing had been done on the protein.

In October 2002, Laos appeared on a CBS News program and said he was certain his biotech medicines could never contaminate conventional crops "because I'm following procedures that make it impossible for that to happen." According to USDA officials, however, ProdiGene failed to monitor properly both the Iowa and Nebraska sites, two of about 24 test sites it has used over the past two years. USDA could fine the company US$500,000 or up to twice the value of the Nebraska soybeans, estimated to be worth US$2.7 million.

Last month, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) said its members would voluntarily stop growing pharmaceutical crops in the large corn producing states of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana and parts of Nebraska, Ohio, Minnesota and Missouri to reduce the chance of accidental contamination of food or animal feed. This voluntary directive, which goes beyond current government regulation, was announced in an attempt to prevent another StarLink corn disaster.

The grocery industry, however, has expressed concerns that this proposal is inadequate to prevent accidental contamination of food crops. Trade groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association want only non-food crops such as tobacco to be genetically engineered to produce drugs and industrial chemicals.

As a result of the contamination, two U.S. Senators, Tom Daschle (South Dakota) and Tom Harkin (Iowa), sent a letter to USDA expressing concern "about the adequacy of the existing regulatory regime to manage the development of this new application of biotechnology while maintaining the safety and security of our food and feed supply." They asked for a comprehensive analysis of the field test permits and regulatory requirements imposed on those field tests--including the number of inspections, the results of such inspections and any testing to detect accidental contamination of conventional crops.

Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups, once again called on the USDA to prohibit open-air cultivation of all crops genetically engineered to produce biopharmaceuticals (such as vaccines), industrial chemicals or other substances with potential human health impacts. In a report released in July 2002, Friends of the Earth, a GEFoodAlert member, warned of the dangers of contamination of the food supply from biopharm crops and the lack of regulatory oversight (see http://www.gefoodalert.org). The GEFoodAlert coalition will soon be filing a legal petition with the USDA calling for an immediate halt to all biopharm cultivation including test plots. Biopharm companies have conducted more than 300 field trials throughout the U.S. since 1991.

In a related story, ProdiGene CEO Laos was appointed by President Bush to serve as a member of the Board for International Food And Agriculture Development (BIFAD). One of BIFAD's primary functions is to provide advice to the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). One of USAID's stated goals is to integrate genetically engineered crops into local food systems around the world. In 2002, the agency launched a US$100 million program to bring biotechnology to developing countries.

Action: Write or email Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and ask for an immediate halt to all biopharm cultivation including test plots. Existing USDA guidelines are totally inadequate to prevent contamination of the food supply.

Send your letter or email to:

Ann Veneman, Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250
Email: Ann.Veneman@usda.gov

<<Sample letter>>

Re: Contamination of Food Crops by Biopharmaceutical Corn

Dear Secretary Veneman:

I am deeply disturbed by the revelation that 500,000 bushels of soybeans destined for human consumption have been quarantined due to contamination by corn genetically engineered to produce a pharmaceutical chemical, and that this was at least the second incident of this type to have taken place. These recent cases show that the genetic engineering industry cannot control biopharm crops once they are planted in open fields.

The Biotech Industry Organization (BIO) and the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) are both calling for changes in current USDA policy regarding biopharm crops since to date it has proven totally inadequate to prevent the contamination of our food supply.

I ask that an immediate moratorium be placed on the growing, including test plots, of all crops genetically engineered to produce biopharmaceuticals (such as vaccines), industrial chemicals or other substances with potential human health impacts. More research is needed on this issue before adequate regulations can be put into place.

I urge you to take immediate action on this critical food safety issue.

Sincerely,

<your name and address>

For more information on biopharm crops, visit the Friends of the Earth Web site at http://www.foe.org/camps/comm/safefood/biopharm/index.html.

Sources: The Guardian (UK), Nov. 19, 2002; Associated Press, Nov. 19, 2002; NewScientist.com news service, Nov. 18, 2002; Chicago Tribune, Nov. 17, 2002; Daschle/Harkin letter to Veneman, Nov. 14, 2002; Des Moines Register, Nov. 14, 2002; GEFoodAlert press releases, Nov. 13 & Nov. 14, 2002; Reuters, Nov. 13, 2002; Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2002; ProdiGene press release, Sept. 9, 2002;

Contact: PANNA.

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