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The hazards of pharm crops

(July 11, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following is from a press release.

A coalition of consumer and environmental groups called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today to prohibit a new class of genetically engineered food crops that threatens to contaminate the food supply much the way StarLink genetically engineered corn did in September 2000. In a letter to the USDA, the coalition called for an end to open air cultivation of crops engineered to produce prescription drugs or industrial chemicals. The new crops, already planted in over 300 field trials at secret locations nationwide, include plants that produce an abortion-inducing chemical, growth hormones, a blood clotter, and trypsin, an allergenic enzyme. The coalition proposed that the USDA permit only contained cultivation of non-food plants under the same controlled circumstances as other drug production.

"Just one mistake by a biotech company and we'll be eating other people's prescription drugs in our corn flakes," said Larry Bohlen, Director of Health and Environment Programs at Friends of the Earth, a member of the coalition. "The USDA should prohibit the planting of food crops engineered with drugs and chemicals to protect the food supply from contamination."

The National Academy of Sciences warns: "…it is possible that crops transformed to produce pharma- ceutical or other industrial compounds might mate with plantations grown for human consumption, with the unanticipated result of novel chemicals in the human food supply." And the editors of Nature Biotechnology recently warned: "Current gene-containment strategies cannot work reliably in the field." A contamination incident may already have occurred as one biotech company official noted at an government-industry conference that: "We've seen it on the vaccine side where modified live seeds have wandered off and have appeared in other products."

In a new report released today, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition details the threats that biopharm crops pose, the extent to which they have been planted across the U.S., the failure of regulatory agencies to serve the public, and a set of recommendations. The report, entitled "Manufacturing Drugs and Chemicals in Crops: Biopharming Poses New Threats to Consumers, Farmers, Food Companies and the Environment," may be found at www.gefoodalert.org.

The majority of engineered biopharmaceuticals and chemicals are in corn, a prolific pollinator. ProdiGene, the company with the most plantings of drug and chemical-producing plants, projects that 10% of the corn crop will be devoted to biopharm production by 2010. StarLink corn, planted on less than 1% of total US corn acreage, contaminated hundreds of food products and corn seed stock with a potentially allergenic protein despite the use of gene containment measures. Far from supporting containment strategies such as buffer areas, Anthony Laos, ProdiGene's CEO, wrote farmers in 2001 that: "We will be dealing with these distances until we can gain regulatory approval to lessen or abandon these requirements altogether." Some companies also propose extracting drugs or chemicals from plants, then selling the remainder. Incomplete extraction would mean drugs or chemicals in food or feed.

"Farmers cannot afford another contamination incident hurting sales and throwing the harvest into turmoil like StarLink did in 2000" said Matt Rand, Biotechnology Campaign Manager at the National Environmental Trust.

ABOUT THE GE FOOD ALERT COALITION AND GEFoodAlert.org Genetically Engineered Food Alert founding members include: Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Environmental Trust, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America, and the State Public Interest Research Groups.

Genetically Engineered Food Alert supports the removal of genetically engineered ingredients from grocery store shelves unless they are adequately safety tested and labeled. The campaign provides web-based opportunities for individuals to express concern about genetically engineered food and fact sheets on health, environmental and economic information about genetically engineered food. The coalition is endorsed by more than 250 scientists, religious leaders, doctors, chefs, environmental and health leaders, as well as farm groups.

BACKGROUND MATERIAL AVAILABLE ON WEB The executive summary, the full report, the letter with recommendations to USDA and a link to the ProdiGene statement are located at: http://www.gefoodalert.org