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New BIO policy denies Iowans chance to grow pharm corn

(Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register: Biotechnology companies have agreed not to grow corn that's engineered for pharmaceutical or industrial uses in Iowa and other Midwest states where grain is widely grown for food and animal feed.

The industry policy is a blow to Iowa's hopes of capitalizing on the development of bioengineered plants for the drug industry.

The policy, adopted recently by the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, is intended to assure the food industry that the pharmaceutical or industrial corn won't get into the food supply.

"It's a precautionary move on the industry's part to make sure there is 100 percent confidence in this technology before it's grown in areas where there are concentrations of these crops," said Robert Dose, vice president of business development for ProdiGene Inc. His company, which originated with Des Moines" Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., is a leading developer of pharmaceutical corn crops.

Gov. Tom Vilsack said Iowans should have a chance to grow the crop.

"I am committed to ensuring adequate, science-based controls that protect the food supply from contamination; however, Iowa farmers should not be excluded from the exciting opportunity presented by biopharmaceuticals," Vilsack said.

Vilsack's Republican opponent this fall, Doug Gross, also has advocated biotechnology as part of his plan to revive Iowa's economy.

The policy by the industry trade group follows a recommendation by the Bush administration in August that crops for pharmaceutical or industry use not be grown in areas where crops are grown for food or feed.

Food processors were rocked by a wave of recalls two years ago when a variety of biotech corn known as StarLink was found in taco shells and other products. The corn was approved for feed, but not food use, because of concerns about its potential to cause allergic reactions.

Biotech companies want to assure consumers and food companies "that there's no possibility of another StarLink debacle happening," Dose said.

ProdiGene is one of about 15 companies that are in various stages of developing crops for pharmaceutical or industrial uses and all are members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the trade group.

Corn is the primary crop being grown for those purposes for several reasons. It's relatively easy to alter corn to produce special proteins, and the grain can be stored for long periods without deteriorating. But corn plants also can easily cross-pollinate with each other, making it possible that plants intended for pharmaceuticals could spread genes to food-grade corn.

A type of corn that has been grown in Iowa, for example, produces an enzyme that helps victims of cystic fibrosis to digest their food. Corn developed by ProdiGene of College Station, Texas, is being tested by drug companies for use in making insulin.

All members of the biotech trade group will be expected to follow the geographic restrictions, which were adopted Oct. 11 by a board of company executives that governs the group's policy on food and agriculture issues, Dry said.

The policy will prevent the special-use corn from being grown in an area stretching from eastern Nebraska to western Ohio and from southern Minnesota to Missouri. All of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana are part of the region.

The policy also says that companies should give the government detailed plans for isolating their biotech crops.

Prodigene grew most of its gene-altered corn this year in Kansas, Nebraska and Texas.

The industry policy goes further than the government has in restricting the production of special-use biotech crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this spring announced it was tightening its planting restrictions for pharmaceutical and industrial corn to lessen the chance of cross-pollination with food and feed crops.

The White House followed in August with a series of proposed guidelines for biotech companies that included the suggested geographic restrictions. The Bush administration also suggested companies develop tests for identifying the special genes in the plants so that the corn could be identified if it got mixed into grain intended for food.

Critics of the biotech industry say the guidelines did not do enough to guard against contamination.

The threat of cross-pollination from the special-use crops has been a major concern to Iowa farmers, although a few have cooperated in small trials of the crops.

Dave Miller, director of commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said that the industry's new restrictions are a "prudent thing to do" given the potential liability of the biotech companies for the crops.

"It will definitely slow down the development of that industry within the Corn Belt," Miller said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., said it should be possible to grow the crops in Iowa and still prevent cross-pollination.

"I don't think you ought to exclude anyplace except based on sound science," he said.

Vilsack said he would work with the biotech trade group to "develop appropriate policies that would ensure food safety while maintaining economic opportunity for Iowa's farm families."