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Mishap with gene-altered corn spotlights the odds of contamination

(Saturday, Nov. 16, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Justin Gillis, Washington Post: The chief executive of ProdiGene Inc., the company that mishandled gene-altered corn in Iowa and Nebraska, said yesterday that his scientists will carefully study the possibility of growing such corn only in parts of the country where it could not contaminate the food supply.

That pledge by Anthony G. Laos, president and chief executive of the College Station, Tex., company, was a break from ProdiGene's past statements claiming that corn altered to make industrial or pharmaceutical proteins could be a boon for family farmers throughout the midwestern Corn Belt. Some other companies, fearing that inadvertent contamination of food crops could lead to multibillion-dollar product recalls, have committed to growing this type of grain only in states such as Arizona or Hawaii where little commodity grain is produced.

In an interview with reporters at his attorney's office in Washington, Laos did not apologize for the incidents in Nebraska and Iowa, which prompted alarms to be sounded this week among food-processing companies and environmental groups. But he did say he took ultimate responsibility for the mishaps, declining to name or to blame the contract farmers that grew corn on the company's behalf.

Laos did not say precisely how far ProdiGene would go to keep its corn away from food grains in the future, nor would he say how long the commitment might last. But he pledged that his company, under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would work closely with that agency to design more rigorous procedures to contain its gene-altered grain.

"We are very committed and very serious in working with USDA," Laos said in the interview. "We don't ever want to be in this situation again."

The Agriculture Department disclosed this week that it had ordered ProdiGene to destroy several thousand bushels of corn in Pocahontas County, Iowa, after the company failed to follow stringent procedures designed to limit the spread of genes foreign to corn. Similarly, at a grain warehouse in Aurora, Neb., inspectors seized 500,000 bushels of soybeans because they were mistakenly mixed with a small amount of leaves and stalks from altered ProdiGene corn. The soybeans, worth more than $2 million, are to be destroyed or diverted for use as fuel.

Laos said the corn in both cases was genetically modified to grow a protein that may serve as a vaccine against a viral disease of pigs. It's highly unlikely such a protein would hurt people even if they ate large amounts of it, since most proteins are rapidly broken down in the human digestive tract. But Laos acknowledged that no formal human safety testing had been done on the protein, and absent such testing, the Food and Drug Administration would be unlikely to allow even a tiny amount of it into the food supply. The FDA has been cooperating with the Agriculture Department in the Iowa and Nebraska investigations.

The privately held ProdiGene has been one of the most aggressive companies in promoting the idea that grains such as corn can be used to grow protein-based industrial or pharmaceutical chemicals. The company has already commercialized two small laboratory proteins and a more significant one, trypsin, that is used in the production of insulin for diabetics. The company is driving toward commercialization of a fourth protein, also useful in manufacturing insulin.

For years, the notion that companies want to do this has alarmed conservationists, who fear unpredictable effects on the environment as foreign genes are introduced into crops planted on thousands or even millions of acres. More recently, food-processing companies have grown alarmed at potential adulteration of their products. The ProdiGene incidents in Iowa and Nebraska have infuriated both groups, demonstrating how readily breakdowns can occur.

"All of a sudden, our what-if scenario was validated -- on a very small scale, thank goodness," said Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association in Washington. "What's going to happen when we're talking about tens of thousands of acres?"

The food companies support biotechnology in principle. But they want biotech companies, at minimum, to agree not to plant altered grain near places where regular grain is grown for food. They would prefer that the biotech companies find ways to make industrial or pharmaceutical proteins in plants that are never used as food.

The biotech companies have resisted the latter demand, contending that many valuable proteins can be produced in the necessary form and quantity only in oilseed crops like corn, safflower or canola -- all significant food crops in North America. Laos said yesterday that his company had studied alternatives, and would continue to do so, but so far had found nothing to beat corn. Several companies, including ProdiGene, have invested years and millions of dollars in their corn research, and fear losing a competitive edge if they have to start over.

In a concession to the food companies, some biotechnology companies have agreed for now to grow altered corn only in remote areas, away from food crops. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, recently announced a limited, voluntary moratorium, saying its member companies would not grow altered corn anywhere in the Corn Belt for the time being.

But that pledge has encountered political resistance, particularly in Iowa, where many farmers are avidly looking for more valuable crops to improve their bottom line. And it's not clear how practical the strategy will be when companies are ready to plant thousands of acres -- some biotech executives acknowledge they probably will want to grow such large amounts of corn in the places where corn grows best.

Up to now, ProdiGene has been reluctant to rule the Corn Belt off limits, and it has seen political support among midwestern farmers as an asset. In a newsletter last year, Laos extolled the potential grower profits and mentioned, as an obstacle, government requirements to isolate the gene-altered corn from ordinary corn by as much as 1,320 feet. "We will be dealing with these distances until we can gain regulatory approval to lessen or abandon these requirements altogether," Laos wrote then.

In the Iowa and Nebraska cases, ProdiGene employed contract farmers who were supposed to follow rigorous procedures to safeguard the food supply. In both cases, gene-altered corn crops, containing the pig vaccine, were planted and harvested in 2001. In 2002, the farmers planted soybeans in those fields. Corn grains left over from the year before sprouted amid the soy.

This is an elementary, well-understood risk of such crops -- the farmers were supposed to diligently remove those plants to keep the gene-altered corn out of soybeans and nearby food corn. Laos said yesterday that both farmers had attempted to do so, but he acknowledged they had failed to remove the corn plants to the satisfaction of the Agriculture Department.

Affected soybeans and nearby food corn were destroyed before harvest in Iowa, but in Nebraska, 500 bushels of soybeans containing a few leaves and stalks from gene-altered corn were harvested and mixed into 500,000 bushels of soybeans at a grain warehouse, rendering the entire lot suspect. ProdiGene has agreed to buy the soybeans and will attempt to sell them as fuel.

The Agriculture Department argues that crops like ProdiGene's can be produced safely, anywhere in the country, as long as strict procedures are followed. The government regards the Nebraska and Iowa incidents as a success for its enforcement efforts, in that potentially adulterated food never reached the market.

"I beg to differ," said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology issues for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington group that supports the technology in principle but believes it must be more strictly regulated. "If the system had worked, this stuff should never have left the farm."