Published on Tuesday, December 17, 2002 by the Madison Capital Times
Biopharm Firm Buys Way Out of Trouble
by John Nichols
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is still asleep at the switch when it comes to protecting the food supply from contamination by untested and potentially dangerous pharmaceutical crops being developed by corporations and universities with genetically engineered dollar signs in their eyes.
Major agribusiness corporations and several universities - including the University of Wisconsin - are rushing to come up with ways to use corn to "grow" pharmaceutical drugs. Biotechnology advances have made it possible to genetically engineer corn and soybeans plants with proteins so that they can grow vaccines for diarrhea and other health conditions - perhaps even AIDS.
More than 300 pharmaceutical test plots have been quietly planted in farm states -including Wisconsin. High-flying corporations, such as Texas-based ProdiGene, are pushing the limits of science and safety with their rush to cash in on huge potential profits from biotech experiments. This should come as no surprise. It is the nature of corporations to push limits.
What is surprising, and troubling, is the failure of the USDA to effectively monitor and regulate that push - and the safety of our food and the future of American farming are threatened as a result.
ProdiGene is a leader in the brave new world endeavor known as biopharming, which seeks to genetically engineer plants to grow proteins for use in medicines developed for humans and animals. Needless to say, when these plants are drugged up with pharmaceutical proteins designed to create vaccines for AIDS and other deadly conditions, they should not be allowed to get anywhere near food crops.
Contamination of food crops does not merely threaten the health and safety of consumers. It could cause other countries - especially those in the European Union, where there is widespread concern about genetic modification of food - to reject U.S. exports.
But ProdiGene, in its rush to cash in on the hefty profits that agribusiness and pharmaceutical industry insiders expect a biotech boom to produce, already has allowed residue from its experimental test fields to jump the fence into food fields. In Nebraska, that failure to police its plants led to the contamination of 500,000 bushels of soybeans. In Iowa, a few weeks earlier, a similar incident required the burning of 155 acres of conventional corn.
The USDA, which was supposed to be keeping a close eye on ProdiGene, was almost as embarrassed as the corporation was by these pharming fiascoes. That's because the USDA has been far too cozy with the biotech industry it is supposed to regulate. (USDA Web sites still promote biopharming as the future of agriculture.)
On the surface, it may look like that coziness came to an end last week, when the USDA proudly announced that it has fined ProdiGene $250,000 for violating the federal Plant Protection Act. The USDA also required the company to reimburse the federal government for the roughly $3 million cost of acquiring and disposing of the Nebraska soybeans. And it reached an agreement with ProdiGene that requires the company to develop a better plan for complying with federal regulations and to post a $1 million bond to cover the cost of future debacles.
That final requirement should set off alarm bells. Corporations are asked to post bonds when it can reasonably be expected that more problems will occur.
ProdiGene should not be allowed to continue to make mistakes that endanger the U.S. food supply.
At the least, biopharming experiments should be moved indoors, to greenhouses, so that no more pharmaceutical corn can jump the fence into food fields. Even that step may be too risky, however.
Consumers Union argues that biopharming poses so many potential threats to food supplies and farming that it ought to be abandoned for the time being. Major environmental organizations and some farm groups are coming around to this position.
If the USDA were serious about protecting U.S. farmers and the grains they grow, the agency would be considering this sort of sanction - not a fine that, for a high-flying company such as ProdiGene, amounts to little more than a slap on its genetically engineered wrist.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times