PANNA: Biopharm Crops Will Contaminate Food Supply


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Biopharm Crops Will Contaminate Food Supply
July 12, 2002

More than 300 field trials of genetically engineered biopharmaceuticals crops already conducted in secret locations nationwide

Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of U.S. consumer and environmental groups, called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prohibit a new class of genetically engineered food crops that threatens to contaminate the food supply. In a letter to the USDA, the coalition called for an end to open air cultivation of crops engineered to produce prescription drugs or industrial chemicals. The new crops, already planted in over 300 field trials at secret locations throughout the U.S., include plants that produce an abortion-inducing chemical, growth hormones, a blood clotter, and trypsin, an allergenic enzyme.

In a new report, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition details the threats that biopharm crops pose, the extent to which they have been planted across the U.S., the failure of regulatory agencies to serve the public, and a set of recommendations.

“Just one mistake by a biotech company and we’ll be eating other people’s prescription drugs in our corn flakes,” said Larry Bohlen, Director of Health and Environment Programs at Friends of the Earth, a member of the coalition. “The USDA should prohibit the planting of food crops engineered with drugs and chemicals to protect the food supply from contamination.”

The USDA has primary authority for experimental biopharm crop cultivation. USDA keeps all drug and chemical crop sites secret from the public and neighboring farmers, hides the identity of the drug or chemical in most cases, and condones biopharm companies’ preferred practice of “anonymously” planting these crops without identification, security measures or notification of neighbors. Joe Jilka of ProdiGene, speaking of his company’s corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine (TGEV), seems more concerned about theft than public safety: “…the best way to secure it is to grow it just like any other corn. In other words, the anonymity of it just completely hides it. You know, our TGEV corn grown [sic] was up here by Story City right by the interstate, and no one could have ever seen it.”

USDA’s gene confinement measures are intended to “minimize” rather than prevent contamination. The few environmental assessments conducted by the USDA are of poor quality, and show a disturbing willingness to bend the rules. For instance, a trial of alfalfa engineered with industrial enzymes was allowed to proceed despite the presence of non-engineered alfalfa “within 200 yards of the test site,” less than the accepted isolation distance. The USDA approved the field trial plan over the objections of the

Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture, even though it allowed open flowers, increasing the contamination risk. USDA is not qualified to evaluate the health risks of biopharm crops, allows commercial use of biopharm plant products, and is too understaffed to exercise adequate on-the-ground oversight, for the most part allowing companies to regulate themselves.

An expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences strongly criticized the USDA for these and other regulatory lapses and deficiencies. The Academy also warns: “…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.”

Corn, a prolific pollinator, is the primary crop engineered to produce biopharmaceuticals and chemicals. ProdiGene, the company with the most plantings of drug and chemical-producing plants, projects that 10% of the corn crop will be devoted to biopharm production by 2010. StarLink corn, planted on less than 1% of total U.S. corn acreage, contaminated corn seed stock and hundreds of food products with a potentially allergenic protein, despite regulations intended to contain it.

Far from supporting containment strategies such as buffer areas, Anthony Laos, ProdiGene’s CEO, wrote to farmers in 2001 saying that: “We will be dealing with these distances until we can gain regulatory approval to lessen or abandon these requirements altogether.” Some companies also propose extracting drugs or chemicals from plants, then selling the remainder of the crop for other uses. Incomplete extraction could mean drugs or chemicals in food or feed.

The report, entitled “Manufacturing Drugs and Chemicals in Crops: Biopharming Poses New Threats to Consumers, Farmers, Food Companies and the Environment,” and other background materials may be found at


Genetically Engineered Food Alert founding members include: Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Environmental Trust, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America, and the State Public Interest Research Groups.

Genetically Engineered Food Alert supports the removal of genetically engineered ingredients from grocery store shelves unless they are adequately safety tested and labeled. The campaign provides web-based opportunities for individuals to express concern about genetically engineered food and fact sheets on health, environmental and economic information about genetically engineered food. The coalition is endorsed by more than 250 scientists, religious leaders, doctors, chefs, environmental and health leaders, as well as farm groups.

Source: GE Food Alert press release, July 11, 2002. Manufacturing Drugs and Chemicals in Crops Fact Sheet, July 2002.

Contact: Larry Bohlen, Friends of the Earth, 1025 Vermont Ave NW, 3rd Floor, Washington DC 20005; phone (202) 783-7400; fax (202) 783-0444;; GE Food Alert,

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