Outdoor pharming puts food supply at risk

Two new cases of contamination in the US

Feature story - 15 November, 2002
Two recently disclosed cases of contamination of the US food supply drive home the inherent dangers of turning plants into mini-factories, producing protein-based pharmaceuticals in fields right next to fields of food crops.

Newspaper ad for biotech Stauffer seed.

Open field trials are currently being carried out in hundreds of locations throughout the heart of US farming regions. While the biotech industry is already producing drugs and proteins for industrial use in rice, wheat, corn and barley, few regulations to protect public health and the environment are in place.

These latest debacles were truly accidents waiting to happen. They demonstrate how genetically engineered crops, once released into the environment, cannot be controlled. The "pharm" crop in question comes from a Texas-based genetic engineering company, ProdiGene, who's working to make a number of plant-generated pharmaceuticals to combat diseases like diabetes, and AIDS. ProdiGene has a history of mishandling its "pharm" crops.

Contamination in Nebraska

A plot of ProdiGene "pharm" corn, genetically engineered to make a pharmaceutical protein, was grown on a Nebraska field in 2001. Ordinary soybeans were planted in the same field this year. Corn seeds left over from the year before sprouted and grew a number of corn plants containing the protein. According to the New York Times, 500 bushels of soybeans were contaminated with the pharm corn. Those soybeans, however, were brought to a grain elevator and mixed with 500,000 bushels of soybeans. The whole amount is worth an estimated US$2.7 million.

Upon discovery, regulators quarantined the grain elevator and will destroy the impounded soybeans.

Contamination in Iowa

The next day, the US government disclosed a similar ProdiGene mishap in Iowa. In the Iowa case, the genetically engineered corn may have been spreading pollen at the same time plants in nearby fields were receptive, raising the concern that genes unapproved for human or animal consumption could have spread into ordinary field corn. The USDA ordered 155 acres of Iowa corn pulled up in September and incinerated.

A black eye for genetic engineering

According to Justin Gillis of the Washington Post, "The ProdiGene matter is proving to be a significant black eye for the biotech industry, which has been trying to reassure the public it can be trusted not to contaminate the food supply."

"All genetically engineered 'pharm' crops currently out there should be banned and all trials stopped immediately," said Dr. Doreen Stabinsky from Greenpeace.

Learn more:

Biotech Firm Mishandled Corn in Iowa (Washington Post, 13 November 2002)

USDA probes Nebraska biotech crop contamination (Reuters, 14 November 2002 )

Greenpeace Identifies Secret Rice Fields with Human Genes (Greenpeace)

Pharm crops: a food accident waiting to happen (Greenpeace briefing paper, 2001)

List of field trials with pharm crops in the US 1991 - 2002 (Friends of the Earth)

Crop Producing Human Protein Found Growing in Open Field Test (Greenpeace press release, 2001)