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Biopharm Corn Spreads Fear in Colorado

"If the process is so damn safe, why is it that this company is
raising this crop 3,000 miles away from home?" Wuerthele said. "It's
like hazardous waste. You go where the least regulations are, dump it
there and run."

Biopharming reaps fear
By Diane Carman
Denver Post, September 28, 2003

The leaves are just beginning to turn in Phillips County, but any farmer
knows that means spring is just around the corner. And next spring
likely will be a bitter one on the Eastern Plains.

A mysterious farmer at a secret location somewhere in northeastern
Colorado is expected to plant a corn crop that must never be eaten by
humans or animals, must never come in contact with other crops, and is
so volatile, a 1-mile buffer must surround it to prevent pollen from
contaminating other crops.

The biopharm corn has been genetically engineered to produce lipase, a
fat-digesting enzyme used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis and other
conditions. Meristem Therapeutics of France won approval from the state
Department of Agriculture to contract with a Colorado farmer to produce
the crop.

Biopharming is a cheap means for producing substances such as lipase
that traditionally have been extracted from animals or formulated in
laboratories.

But though the permit has been approved, it hasn't put an end to the
controversy. While the industry lobbies for support, farmers and
environmentalists have mobilized to protest the pharm-corn farm.

"There are still too many unanswered questions," said John Stencel,
president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

Stencel returned last week from a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, France, to
visit the Meristem labs. The Colorado Corn Growers Association paid to
send Stencel, three state legislators and others on the six-day trip.

The group talked to scientists, reviewed research data and toured a
Meristem farm.

State Rep. Ray Rose, R-Montrose, said he went to France "skeptical of
the entire situation," but the trip changed his mind. "I thought, 'Yes,
we can do it safely.'

"There were apples, grapes and other crops growing right around it" with
no adverse effects, Rose said. "There's a lot of fear out there, but
those fears are not based on any scientific platform. They're pure
emotion."

Suzanne Wuerthele, a toxicologist who chairs the genetic engineering
committee for the Sierra Club, disagreed. She said the risks are
potentially devastating for farmers, consumers and the environment. And
she criticized the permit process in Colorado.

"It was conducted in secret and considered in a very ignorant fashion,"
she said. The Department of Agriculture "handpicked" friends of
biotechnology to review the application and withheld critical
information. "They decided the public's right to know was superseded by
the company's desire for confidentiality."

Wuerthele said the male sterile corn used on the biopharms still
produces up to 10 percent of the pollen typically released by fertile
corn plants, and that winds easily could carry the pollen to nearby food
cornfields.

Furthermore, the effect on wildlife and humans who eat the pharm
corn is unknown - even Meristem officials emphasize the need for
segregating the crop - and the risk to farmers who inhale the
lipase-laced dust during the harvest is great, Wuerthele said.

"Alveoli in the lungs are damaged by enzymes like lipase," she said.

Producing pharmaceutical compounds in food crops is "a really,
really bad idea. The chance of it contaminating the food supply is
great," Wuerthele said. "And once that happens, it will destroy our
export markets."

Stencel is equally concerned about the impact on the commodities
market. "Our exports are still off 30 to 40 percent from what they were
six years ago," primarily because many foreign countries refuse to buy
genetically modified foods, he said.

And while "a dozen, maybe two dozen" farmers in the state could be
enriched by the production of the lucrative biopharm crops, "thousands
of other farmers could be hurt."

But since Meristem already has the go-ahead, Stencel and other
farmers are exploring the question of liability in the event that food
crops are contaminated, as they were in biopharm mistakes in Iowa and
Nebraska in 2002.

Some farmers are insisting on triple damages for any crops that
must be destroyed because of biopharm contamination.

It's not greed, Stencel said. "You may not be able to grow a crop
again on the same soil for a year or two. And who will pay? The research
company? The farmer? We need to know the answer."

Rose said protocols are in place that reduce the dangers from
biopharming, and that the benefits to society from the production of
cheaper pharmaceuticals outweigh the risks.

But if that's the case, somebody needs to tell the food industry.
Among the most vocal skeptics of biopharming are food giants Frito-Lay,
Campbell Soup and Kraft Foods.

When StarLink genetically modified corn found its way into taco
shells and other foods in 2000, it cost the industry more than $1
billion in recall expenses, lawsuits and lost sales.

"If the process is so damn safe, why is it that this company is
raising this crop 3,000 miles away from home?" Wuerthele said. "It's
like hazardous waste. You go where the least regulations are, dump it
there and run."

http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36~53~1659809,00.html

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