Biotech’s Three Mile Island

| January 6, 2003 Issue

Last November, a Nebraska farmer planted a test plot of corn genetically modified to produce proteins for the treatment of diarrhea in pigs. When the “biopharmed” corn ended up mixing with soybeans he grew for human consumption, USDA investigators had to quarantine a warehouse of 500,000 bushels of soybeans that had come into contact with the corn, reports John Nichols in The Nation.

Welcome to the brave new world of “biopharming” in which American farmers are growing crops containing powerful medicines. “This is the Three Mile Island of biotech,” says Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “We’re at the earliest stage of the attempt to genetically engineer corn plants to make them factories for producing powerful and potentially dangerous drugs, and already we have examples of contamination of food crops. This is scary stuff.”

Monsanto, ProdiGene and other biotech corporations believe that biopharming will generate AIDS vaccines and blood-clotting agents, among other things, and are paying an increasing number of U.S. farmers to grow these experimental plants. But biopharming is proceeding with little government regulation, despite the inability of growers to safely isolate their test crops from neighboring crops intended for human consumption. If those crops should become tainted by biopharming, says Iowa State University agriculture professor Neil Harl, it’s not just the health of consumers we’ll have to worry about—it’s the health of American agriculture. “If consumers take on the belief that corn products are being contaminated with products designed for vastly different uses--like HIV vaccines or hepatitis B vaccines or any of a variety of other things that are being discussed—and if they think this contamination poses a threat to them, that’s going to create the risk of a negative reaction to corn grown in the United States. And consumers are kings. If consumers start to have doubts about U.S. corn, farm-state economies are going to be in very serious trouble.”

--Erica Sagrans

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