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CSU professor urges cautious approach with bio-pharm crops

(Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Patrick Byrne commentary in BioScience News & Advocate, 02/17/04: In my home state of Colorado, the ongoing battles over agricultural biotechnology seemed to be calming down about a year ago. Attempts to require labeling of genetically modified (GM) food had lost steam, and a policy adopted by Boulder County promoted the co-existence of GM and organic crops. One could begin to look forward to an era of continuing compromise and mutual respect between the opposing camps.

The relative peace was shattered in spring of 2003 by a request from Meristem Therapeutics, a French company, to grow a plot of corn that produces lipase, an enzyme used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis patients. This was the first field trial proposed for Colorado involving a “bio-pharm” or “plant-made pharmaceutical” (PMP) crop. Immediately after the Meristem application became public knowledge, the protests began: demonstrations at the state capitol, op-ed pieces in newspapers, and worried letters to state officials.

What was notable in this round of the biotech battles was that it was not just the usual suspects (Friends of the Earth, the organic foods lobby, etc.) who were voicing concern. This time family farmers, nutritionists, the grocery industry, and the “person in the street” expressed apprehension, if not downright alarm, at the prospect of medicines in their cornflakes.

Meristem’s application to grow the trial was tentatively approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was forwarded to the state Department of Agriculture for concurrence. The state had a mere 30 days to evaluate the application and respond to USDA.

To make a long story short, the state convened a technical advisory panel, which raised a series of concerns and questions of Meristem and the contracted farmers. After the concerns were deemed to be adequately addressed, the state issued its concurrence with USDA, and the company was issued its permit. However, by the time the permit was granted, optimal planting dates for corn had passed, and Meristem decided not to plant the crop.

The attention on bio-pharm crops, however, has not abated. State government, university think tanks, entrepreneurs, farmers’ groups, and environmental organizations are all studying the issue and discussing their next moves. At the national level, USDA has announced its intentions to review the way it regulates field release of GM organisms. About the same time, the National Research Council released a report questioning the adequacy of any single gene containment strategy, instead calling for redundant levels of containment.

All this ferment adds up to a clear message, at least in the Colorado context: Now is not the time to forge ahead with PMP field trials. There is too much public anxiety about producing pharmaceuticals in food crops, too many policy reviews underway, too many questions about gene containment. A misstep now (a la Starlink) could derail the infant industry for years.

In the interests of long-term benefit to medical patients and rural economies, it’s time to slow down, carefully analyze risks and benefits, explain bio-pharming to the public, and consider alternative PMP strategies in non-food crops like algae or tobacco. Proceeding with caution now will pay ample dividends in the future.

Patrick Byrne, Associate Professor Department of Soil & Crop Sciences, Colorado State University

Source: http://www.bioscinews.com/files/news-detail.asp?newsID=6269