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Tainted soybeans raise fears about bio-pharming

(Monday, Nov. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

MIKE TONER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: A handful of genetically modified cornhusks in a Nebraska grain elevator has tainted the harvest in America's heartland and raised new doubts about the government's ability to protect the nation's food from crops engineered to produce drugs and other chemicals.

An ounce of errant stubble in 500 bushels of soybeans may not sound like much in a country that will produce 3 billion bushels of the beans this year.

But the discovery, in an Aurora, Neb., grain elevator, has led the U.S. Agriculture Department to quarantine a half-million bushels of potentially contaminated beans. And it has raised questions about the government's ability to protect the nation's food supply in an era when corporations are experimenting with "biopharming" -- genetically altering plants to produce drugs and industrial chemicals.

To make sure no contaminated soybeans get to market, the USDA has ordered the disposal -- either by outright destruction or diversion to nonfood uses -- of all the beans stored in the same location, valued at $2.7 million. It is considering fines against the company responsible for the incident, Texas-based ProdiGene, and may order it to reimburse Nebraska farmers for their losses.

The Food and Drug Administration says none of the unauthorized material made it into the nation's food supply.

But the incident marked at least the third time this year that unapproved genetically engineered plant material threatened to slip into the food supply.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group often critical of biotechnology policy, has asked the USDA to halt further tests of biopharm crops immediately. The agency has approved more than 300 tests in at least 10 states.

"If the USDA continues to allow biopharm food crops to be planted, someone is going to get prescription drugs or industrial chemicals in their cornflakes," said Larry Bohlen, director of the group's health and environment program.

Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the incident "ample evidence that the biotechnology industry cannot be trusted to meet its obligations of safeguarding the food supply and the environment."

Environmental groups have long been critical of bio-pharming and other efforts to manipulate the genes of crops, such as engineered herbicide resistance. This time, however, their criticism is being echoed by segments of the food industry as well.

Foreign buyers wary

The powerful Grocery Manufacturers of America, representing an industry with $450 billion in annual sales, has expressed "deep concern" that the country has no reliable way to keep biopharmed material off the dinner table.

"The food industry requires complete assurance from regulators and the biotech industry that the safety and integrity of the U.S. food supply remains intact," said Karil Kochenderfer, director of new technologies for the group.

The American Soybean Association is alarmed as well, even though its growers' crop is two-thirds genetically modified. The group chastised ProdiGene for failing to be "as aggressive and attentive as it should have been" to prevent the incident, and it suggested that federal regulations may need strengthening.

Soybean growers have particular cause for concern. Nearly one-third of the U.S. crop is exported, and key markets, including those in Europe and Japan, are increasingly concerned about the industry's apparent inability to segregate conventional crops from genetically modified ones.

The current controversy stems from corn that ProdiGene grew on a three-quarter-acre plot in central Nebraska last year. The crop was harvested, and, in keeping with traditional crop rotation, soybeans were planted on the same ground this year.

When the soybeans were harvested this fall, they were apparently mixed with a few stalks of corn that had sprouted from the previous year's crop. The problem wasn't discovered until the soybeans had been delivered to the Aurora Cooperative Elevator Co. and mixed with soybeans from other farms.

Neither ProdiGene nor the government will disclose exactly what genetic modification the errant corn contained, but Anthony Laos, the company's chief executive officer, says it was a protein for "persistent digestive health conditions."

The company is known to be working on a protein used in manufacturing a vaccine for travelers' diarrhea. Earlier this month it also announced plans to produce commercial quantities -- certain to require plantings of thousands of acres -- of genetically engineered corn containing "trypsin," an intermediary in the production of insulin, pain control products, food processing and infant formulas.

Of the 85 permits for bio-pharming tests ProdiGene has received, nearly half have been in Nebraska and Iowa. Most of them involve genetic modifications of corn.

ProdiGene, however, is only one of at least five firms actively working on U.S. farms to turn conventional crops into living factories for a cornucopia of compounds, ranging from vaccines for hepatitis and hormones for human contraception to industrial materials.

'Drug-free zone' set up

As the products of these "plant pharmacies" have grown more exotic, even the biotechnology industry has grown uneasy about the prospect that errant genes could creep into the food supply.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, last month agreed not to grow genetically modified drug- and chemical-producing crops in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and parts of Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Ohio and Kentucky.

The industry hopes the temporary "drug-free" zone, which will take effect in 2003, will give companies and the government time to work out ways of keeping crops segregated.

But at least two other incidents this year show how difficult it will be to maintain a physical separation between crops all the way from the field to the supermarket.

In September, the USDA ordered the burning of 155 acres of Iowa corn out of fears that it may have been pollinated from a nearby field of ProdiGene's genetically modified corn.

This year, the Monsanto Co. recalled several lots of its canola seed after discovering it had been mixed with genetically modified varieties not intended for human consumption.

In all three cases, the suspect material was intercepted early in the food supply chain. Three years ago, however, when the system failed to catch potentially allergenic proteins in genetically modified corn, it triggered a nationwide recall of tortillas, corn chips and 300 other corn products.