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Pharma Crops Spreading to Colorado

The Denver Post
editorial

Be cautious with "biopharming"

Sunday, June 13, 2004 -

The state agriculture department's endorsement of a federal permit allowing researchers to plant genetically engineered "pharmaceutical" corn in Colorado propels the state into the ongoing debate over biotech crops.

The goal is to produce quicker, cheaper medicine. Opponents believe the risks to human and animal health and the state's economy outweigh the benefits if the altered corn contaminates other crops or gets into the food supply. Both sides have compelling arguments, and we urge extreme caution as the federal government moves ahead with the program.

Biopharmaceuticals are medicines not yet approved for human use. A large part of our concern stems from the fact there has been little research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration, which sponsor the program, on the impact of accidentally eating altered crops. Some experts speculate they could cause severe allergic reactions.

In addition, there was no organized program of public notification and hearings for this plan, such as those commonly done by government agencies for many environmental matters. This is Colorado's first biopharmaceutical project, and state and federal officials should have made a greater effort to notify the public, even though doing so wasn't bureaucratically required.

Iowa-based researchers planted the experimental corn recently on a 40-foot-by-90-foot plot of prairie in Logan County, leaving a five-mile buffer between the patch and the closest farm. Federal regulations require a one-mile safety zone. California, which is considering a pharmaceutical rice program, requires a minimum 100-mile barrier.

The biopharmaceutical corn that will sprout in Colorado will look like regular corn, but the seeds have been injected with a gene from the E. coli bacillus. Researchers hope the gene will produce a protein that can be processed to produce a vaccine to treat severe diarrhea that kills thousands of children in developing counties.

Some of the concerns of opponents stem from problems in other states. Two years ago, 500,000 bushels of soybeans in Nebraska had to be destroyed after they were contaminated by pharmaceutical corn. In Iowa, the USDA ordered 155 acres of regular corn incinerated in 2002 because pollen from genetically altered corn may have drifted into nearby fields.

State agriculture department officials say the likelihood of something similar happening in Colorado is remote. Researchers planted their corn 30 days after regular corn was planted in the area. And they plan to harvest it early, after which the corn stalks will be destroyed.

The state role in the biopharm program seems unclear, and that's worrisome. The federal government issues the permit for such a project, and a private farmer gives permission to use the land, leaving the state as a bystander. Perhaps the state needs to take a more hands-on role by being given the power to issue its own permits, as has been proposed - and rejected - in the past. That would give state officials a greater say on safeguards rather than leaving them in only a possible clean-up role.

For now, the researchers are focusing on the process of production, trying to perfect the injection of the E. ecoli gene into the corn seed. There will not be enough corn to actually produce any vaccine. But if the process proves successful, larger biopharm cornfields could be sprouting in Colorado in the future.