Biotech Bullies Back off on GE Drugs in Corn Crops?

Also below : Vilsack, Gross weigh in on biotech decision
        Biotech Industry Adopts Precaution--Altered Plants Banned Near Major Food Crops

Associated Press
October 23, 2002
Biotech Companiess to Limit Altered Corn


Several biotech companies have agreed not to grow genetically engineered
corn intended for pharmaceutical development in states where it could
contaminate neighboring fields planted with crops for human consumption.
The self-imposed moratorium was adopted this month by members of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization. A genetically engineered StarLink corn
variety approved solely for animal feed turned up in taco shells two years
ago, prompting a massive recall and an expensive recovery effort.

"We've got to eliminate the misconceptions and the fears that were instilled
by the StarLink fiasco," said Robert Dose, vice president for business
development at ProdiGene Inc., which has developed a corn that contains an
enzyme for making insulin.

The voluntary moratorium affects states in the corn belt, including
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and parts of Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska
and Ohio.

The government suggested earlier this year that crops intended for
pharmaceutical development should not be planted near fields devoted to
crops for human food and animal feed.

Associated Press 10/24/02

Vilsack, Gross weigh in on biotech decision


Gov. Tom Vilsack said a decision by a biotechnical industry group not to
grow genetically engineered corn for pharmaceutical purposes in states such
as Iowa is "a dangerous precedent."

"I feel this decision by for a pharma-crop ban is a knee-jerk reaction that
is not fully warranted by the scientific evidence," Vilsack wrote in a
letter to the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The group said this week that its members had agreed not to grow
pharmaceutical crops in states where it could contaminate neighboring crops
intended for human consumption. That includes Iowa, and Vilsack reacted
quickly, dashing off a letter asking the group for a clarification of its
policy. "I support food safety and security, but this decision appears to be
overreaching," Vilsack said. "It seems more like an effort to exclude the
nation's most productive farmers, small businesses and university
researchers from this emerging industry."

Vilsack has said the state could have a bright future in developing
genetically engineered crops for the pharmaceutical industry.
"It would be foolish and premature to shut down our access to this
opportunity until we've had a full and fair examination of the scientific
evidence on this issue," the governor said. "Iowa can have both a secure
food supply and an innovative biopharmaceutical industry - those goals are
not mutually exclusive."

Doug Gross, Vilsack's Republican rival, also reacted quickly, but he blamed
Vilsack for the episode.

"If this decision stands, Iowa will miss an economic revolution that is
going to change the world," Gross said. "Tom Vilsack may be content to let
success pass us by, but I refuse to allow Iowa to fall by the wayside of the
next great economic revolution."

He blamed the decision on Vilsack's "failure to show leadership" and said
that's further evidence of the need to replace him as governor.
"With our substantial seed industry, we have the expertise here to lead the
world into this exciting new frontier," Gross said in a conference call with

In his letter to Carl Feldbaum, president of the group, Vilsack called for
more discussion on the issue.

"Your policy sets a dangerous precedent for the regulation of other biotech
varieties," Vilsack wrote.

Washington Post 10/22/02
Biotech Industry Adopts Precaution--Altered Plants Banned Near Major Food Crops
By: Justin Gillis

Spurred by growing fear that drugs or chemicals made in gene-altered plants
will taint the food supply, the North American biotechnology industry is
adopting a broad moratorium on planting certain types of crops in major
food-producing regions.

The voluntary ban, which goes beyond any proposed government regulation, is
designed to prevent the spread of exotic genes into field crops likely to be
used for food or animal feed. Its most immediate impact will be to bar
companies from planting certain types of gene-altered corn in the Midwest
farm belt or from planting some types of the rape plant (from which canola
oil is produced) on the Canadian prairie, but the ban could eventually apply
to numerous crops and regions.

Michael J. Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, outlined the new policy in an interview
yesterday. The Washington organization, the trade group of the North
American biotechnology industry, formally adopted the plan several days ago,
after more than a year of intensive discussions. Word of it has been
filtering out to interested groups, but the policy has not previously been
disclosed to the public. Though the policy is voluntary, a dozen companies
in the United States and Canada that are trying to produce pharmaceuticals
and industrial chemicals in plants have endorsed it, and newcomers would be
likely to face strong industry pressure to go along. "If you are in the
Midwest corn belt with a test plot today, you will not be there as a BIO
member company in 2003," Phillips said.

The policy, he added, is designed to prevent a recurrence of the debacle
that struck the food and biotechnology industries two years ago. Genetically
engineered StarLink corn, approved only as animal feed, wound up in taco
shells and other food products. No illness was convincingly attributed to
the contamination, but recalling the tainted products cost companies
hundreds of millions of dollars.

The altered genes in StarLink corn merely made the plant more resistant to
insects. Biotech companies have far more ambitious plans: They say plants
hold enormous promise as factories for producing drugs. Tests have already
shown that human genes inserted into the plants can prompt them to make
large quantities of medically useful proteins, which can then be refined and
bottled like any other drug. Companies are preparing to test treatments made
this way for herpes virus, respiratory disease and a host of other ailments.
Useful industrial compounds could be made cheaply by the same techniques.
But there's growing fear, among environmentalists, food producers and even
many biotechnology companies, that the exotic genes in these plants could
spread to food crops on nearby farms as pollen is transferred by wind or
insects. The industry fears that the ensuing public-relations disaster --
"your heart medicine in my cornflakes," in a common catchphrase -- would
kill the technology.

"I think we can all agree that this industry cannot afford StarLink II,"
said Michael H. Pauly, executive director of biotechnology for Epicyte
Pharmaceutical Inc. of San Diego, which is a year away from testing a herpes
drug grown in corn. "One incident like that is unacceptable. It's going to
require a certain standard of behavior from the entire industry."

A company in Texas is already making an industrial enzyme in corn. But no
human drug made this way has come to market, and few companies have gotten
past test plantings. For that reason, the policy's near-term impact should
be limited, forcing companies to move test plots of gene-altered corn from
the Midwest, where a handful were planted this season, to states like
Arizona and Hawaii, where corn is not a significant food crop.

The bigger impact is likely to come over the next three to five years, as
companies draw up plans for commercializing drugs now in the early stages of
development. While the moratorium could steer projects to some states,
others -- particularly the corn states of the Midwest -- are likely to lose
small but valuable drug facilities that they had counted in their long-range
economic plans. Already, midwestern secretaries of agriculture who know
about the new policy have expressed reservations to BIO.

At the other end of the spectrum, many environmental groups are likely to
find the voluntary action insufficient. A coalition of these groups, while
acknowledging that the technology holds potential for human health, has
called for producing gene-altered food plants only inside strictly
segregated buildings, or making drugs only in plants never used as food.
"I'm sure the industry is feeling great about this policy, but I still think
it's pretty weak," said Matt Rand, biotechnology campaign manager at the
National Environmental Trust in Washington. He said the public should be
especially concerned about a new technology when "even the industry lobby
group recognizes that there's a problem."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture and
their counterparts in Canada have been devising policies to manage the risk
the crops will pose. Generally, the rules are aimed at separating the
biotech crops from field crops enough to prevent gene transfer.

The BIO moratorium goes beyond these government requirements, but it does
permit continued field tests in many states. It bans plantings only in
regions where a particular crop is of considerable economic importance, as
measured by the USDA, and is also prone to spreading its genes around. Corn
and the canola plant are among the most promiscuous plants in this way.
To dodge the contamination problem, some biotech companies have already
switched to more controllable plants, such as safflower, that are planted
only in limited quantity in North America and that don't readily spread

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