- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Environmentalists and food industry groups are concerned that crops grown solely for use in pharmaceuticals could contaminate the food supply, and think the federal government must regulate the practice better.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and 10 other food industry groups said they support “pharma crops” as a cost-effective measure to create vaccines and medicine, but have called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop stronger guidelines.

A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest questions the safety of pharma crops and is concerned about spreading unwanted traits to other plants. It says the USDA has failed to assess the risk adequately or notify the public of current practices.

Some environmentalists also fear that contaminated crops could cause health problems such as allergic reactions.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service plans to announce new proposals in the coming weeks to keep the public better informed and will release the results of field trials, statistical data and environmental impact statements, said spokesman Jim Rogers.

Pharmaceutical companies use various crops, including corn, to grow ingredients for drugs, such as proteins used to develop vaccines and other medication. Medical authorities say using such protein is safer than producing it in animal or human cells because plants don’t carry the same viruses that can contaminate a vaccine.

“Without a comprehensive system in place, we are jeopardizing the safety and integrity of the U.S. food supply,” Karl Kochenderfer, GMA’s director of environment and new technologies, said last year when the government accepted public comment on new permitting requirements.

The USDA has received 16 permit applications for the growing seasons this year and have granted seven.

Permit applications have been filed for 240 acres in 11 states: Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, California, Nebraska, Kentucky, Washington, Iowa, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas. The exact location of the crop is kept confidential to prevent sabotage or corporate espionage, Mr. Rogers said.

Little attention was paid to the growing and testing of such crops when it began in the 1980s, until 2002, when ProdiGene Inc., an agricultural biotechnology company, violated government regulations and was fined $500,000.

The company failed to remove corn that grew on a field used for pharma crops the previous year, as the USDA had demanded.

The government forced the company to buy back the soybeans it harvested from the bed that had been mixed with other locally produced grain at a storage facility, and 500 bushels were destroyed.

“This shows how our regulations work,” Mr. Rogers said. “We found it, tracked it down, and had it destroyed. Inspections have strengthened since then.”

Other safeguards enforced by the government include varying planting times to ensure that if pollen did migrate to another field, there would be no other plants with which to pollinate.

“The measures we have in place prevent that pollen from being viable,” Mr. Rogers said.

Bruce Chassy, professor of food microbiology and biotechnology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the cost savings from planting pharma corps is 50 percent to 90 percent, sharply lower than from using a fermentation facility.

“It is clearly desirable,” Mr. Chassy said.

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