WASHINGTON -- December 15 -- For more than a decade, corn, soybeans, and other food crops genetically engineered to produce drugs, vaccines, and industrial chemicals have been grown on American farms. But a new report by six agricultural experts now warns that the food supply is vulnerable to contamination by these "pharmaceutical crops" unless substantial changes are made in the ways and places such crops are grown and managed.
Based on the experts' findings, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) today called on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately ban the field production of corn, soybeans, and other food crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. UCS recommends that the USDA spearhead a major campaign to encourage and fund safer alternatives like non- food crops or growing pharmaceutical food crops indoors.
"Nobody wants drugs in their cornflakes," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, Director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS. "Consumers who discover that they have unwittingly ingested drugs in their cereal and taco shells are likely to direct their ire -- and their lawsuits -- against the companies that sold them the food."
UCS convened the panel of experts to determine whether it is possible to produce pharmaceuticals in familiar food crops like corn or soybean (the two plants most often used for pharmaceutical production) without contaminating human food or animal feed. The panel -- acting independently of UCS -- analyzed the current system for growing food- and feed-grade corn and soybeans and identified many points where drugs and plastics could pass to the food supply if pharmaceutical crops were grown under the same system. After evaluating various approaches to blocking contamination at those points, the panel concluded that the current corn and soybean production system cannot be used for pharmaceutical corn and soybean in the United States while ensuring virtually no contamination of the food and feed system.
"It is sobering that drugs and industrial chemicals could have so many routes to the food supply," said Dr. David Andow, editor of the technical report and a professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. "Pollen can be carried to fields with food crops by the wind or insects, seeds lodged in the crevices of harvesting equipment could come loose while harvesting food, and plants can come up as volunteers in the middle of a food crop. To protect the food supply, each potential route has to be blocked."
The expert panel said it is theoretically possible for the government to create a new system that would allow corn or soybean to be safely used as pharmaceutical crops. Establishing that system, however, especially if it permits pharmaceutical crop production to continue within traditional food-crop regions, would require new management systems, new oversight, and new uses of some equipment and technologies -- all built from the ground up. The expert panel strongly encouraged development of this new system.
UCS doubts the USDA could establish, monitor, and ensure the successful operation of a new system of this magnitude. Over the past few years, the federal government has put together a piecemeal system, which, while moving in the right direction, is not enough to protect the food supply. The better way to reap the benefits of pharmaceutical crops is to stop the use of food crops now and begin to explore other production methods, like non-food crops or plant cell cultures.
"Consumers and food companies alike will not accept a system that allows drugs to seep into the food supply-even at very low levels," said Dr. Jane Rissler, Deputy Director of UCS's Food and Environment Program. "But alternatives will not emerge overnight. That's why the USDA must embark immediately on a major campaign to encourage and fund alternatives to the outdoor use of food and feed crops in pharmaceutical and industrial crop production."
The technical report was written by scientists at Iowa Sate University, University of Central Florida, University of California at Davis, University of Illinois, and University of Minnesota, and an agricultural management expert based in Hudson, Iowa. An introduction to the technical report and UCS conclusions and recommendations were written by Drs. Mellon and Rissler. The technical report and UCS conclusions and recommendations are being released today as one document, A Growing Concern: Protecting the Food Supply in an Era of Pharmaceutical and Industrial Crops.
A Growing Concern can be found on the web at http://www.ucsusa.org. Formed in 1969 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UCS is a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens combining rigorous scientific analysis, innovative policy development and effective citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.