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OCA and GEFA Coalition File Legal Petition to Stop Biopharm Crops

December 18, 2002

Ban on 'biopharm' crops urged Group cites risks from plants genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals

By Elizabeth Weise USA TODAY

A coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups has filed a formal legal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to halt the planting of ''biopharm'' crops, plants genetically engineered to contain pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. The group, Genetically Engineered Food Alert, citing human health and environmental risks, called Monday for an indefinite moratorium on all such ''pharm'' crops and asked that the USDA require environmental impact statements for all ''pharm'' crops. The step follows the USDA's enforcement action earlier this month against Texas-based ProdiGene, which was developing a type of corn to produce a pig vaccine.

The USDA fined ProdiGene $250,000 for allowing its corn to contaminate 500,000 bushels of soybeans in Nebraska. It was the largest civil penalty levied so far by the department under the Plant Protection Act of 2000 and the latest development in the continuing controversy over the bioengineering of plants. Though environmentalists worry that ''pharming'' might accidentally introduce hazardous drugs, vaccines and industrial chemicals into the food supply, scientists see the chance of better and cheaper drugs created in more environmentally friendly ways. ''Pharmed'' pharmaceuticals also hold the promise of innovative drugs for the developed world that are too complex to be created through chemical means, and inexpensive medicines and vaccines for the developing world. Making pharmaceuticals today is an expensive enterprise that uses chemical and sometimes biological processes to create the complex protein molecules used in medicines.

But what humans do clumsily in vast factories using dangerous chemicals, plants already do elegantly in their own cells, using only water, dirt and the sun. One of the dreams of biotechnology is to turn plants into living factories to create drugs and vaccines for human use. To do that, scientists insert genes into the plant's DNA so that the plant produces the protein molecule specified by the new gene -- a protein molecule that can then be used to produce either medicine or vaccines. The idea has its opponents, who worry that turning plants into drug factories threatens the safety of the food supply or that drug-producing plants might accidentally spread into the wild.

The major concern in the ProdiGene case was that the corn, which wasn't certified safe for human consumption, might cause allergic reactions if it were accidentally ingested. So far there aren't any ''pharmed'' drugs on the market. But since 2001, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has granted at least 25 permits to test plants engineered to make pharmaceuticals in 14 states. Such plants are subject to strict federal guidelines to ensure that they don't contaminate other crops and inadvertently get into the food supply. Of course, that presumes that growers follow the rules, which didn't happen in the ProdiGene case. And even those rules aren't enough for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association, both of which have called for ''stringent'' regulatory oversight governing drug-producing plants.

Arizona State University's Charles Arntzen, whose work on the development of plants to yield oral vaccines is widely recognized, says it seems clear that within the next five years all such crops will be grown ''under glass where they can be tightly controlled or in some sort of physical isolation.'' Today, most test fields are fallow as winter approaches. But come spring, test plots will pop up around the USA.

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