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Processors: edible crops need protection

(Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Atlanta Journal and Constitution: Washington - Genetically engineered crops must not be used to grow pharmaceuticals and other products unless there will be absolutely no contamination of the food supply, grocery manufacturers said Tuesday.

"We live in a world of zero tolerance," declared Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association. "Perception is reality on the part of consumers. If you cannot confine these crops to the extent that it cannot get into food, then you should not use these crops." Insistence on a zero tolerance policy by the powerful grocery industry demonstrated the complicated tangle of interests at play in the issue of how much freedom pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotechnology companies and others will be given in using genetic manipulation in producing nonfood products on the farm.

It also is another setback for the biotechnology companies, which have been on the defensive since last month, when 500,000 bushels of soybeans were destroyed in Nebraska, allegedly contaminated with an artificial gene that had been used to produce an unidentified drug.

Corn contain ing the gene had been provided to an Iowa farmer by ProdiGene, a College Station, Texas, bioengineering firm. After growing the experimental crop on a small plot last year, the farmer rotated the plot to soybeans. But some of the corn also sprouted this year, and stalks were inadvertently mixed with the harvested beans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which quarantined, then destroyed the contaminated soybeans, refuses to say what product had been growing in the engineered corn. There are reports that it was a protein to be used to treat or vaccinate for diarrhea, either in humans or hogs.

ProdiGene has agreed to pay a $250,000 fine and as much as $3 million for the soybeans. Appearing with Applebaum and others in a forum to debate whether "pharming" can be done safely, a representative of the Biotechnology Industry Organization said ProdiGene had violated clear rules and that the industry was eager to develop additional procedures to protect food from contamination.

The BIO official, Michael J. Phillips, disagreed with recommendations that only nonfood plants be approved for use in producing pharmaceuticals or industrial materials, such as plastics. Aside from tobacco, very few nonfood crops have been even tested as possible hosts for genetically engineered industrial and pharmaceutical products, industry officials said.

Corn reportedly is used 70 percent of the time when farm plants are bioengineered to produce nonfood substances. He said that "from a scientific perspective, corn is a miracle crop for biotechnology."

But Allison Snow, a biology professor at Ohio State University, said it is not practical to try to prevent escape of foreign genes from engineered food crops grown on a commercial scale. "I recommend that we separate the food crops from the pharmaceutical crops," she said, "and do not use the same species for both."