Scientist Group Calls for Tighter Oversight of 'Biopharming' Genetic Crops

Companies and researchers engaged in biopharming — genetically modifying crops to produce drugs and industrial chemicals — need to take a step back if the process is to safely move forward, according to a report released Wednesday.

Dec. 16—Companies and researchers engaged in biopharming — genetically modifying crops to produce drugs and industrial chemicals — need to take a step back if the process is to safely move forward, according to a report released Wednesday.

The technology could lead to cheap and abundant production of much-needed vaccines and medical treatments, as well as valuable plastics and polymers, said a panel of six academic experts commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group.

But unless regulations are tightened and new agricultural oversight systems put in place, the scientists fear that plant-made chemicals could turn up in consumers' corn flakes. The Union is calling for an immediate ban on biopharming research and production in food crops in open fields, to avoid contamination of the food supply.

"Consumers have a right to safe food," said Margaret Mellon, director of the Union's food and environment program. "As the system exists today, corn and soybeans cannot be used" for pharma production without undue risk.

Biopharming, which is still in an early and largely experimental phase, uses plants such as corn and soybeans to produce non-food chemicals and proteins that could be harmful if eaten. These valuable ingredients are extracted, purified and processed into drugs, vaccines or industrial enzymes; the plants themselves are destroyed.

Monsanto Co. of Creve Coeur, the world's leading producer of genetically modified crops, has decided not to pursue biopharming. But some of its corporate competitors, as well as small startup firms, are developing it as the potential underpinning of a lucrative new industry.

Chlorogen Inc., based at the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise in Creve Coeur, has genetically engineered and grown tobacco plants that contain human blood plasma. Sigma-Aldrich Corp., headquartered downtown, is developing expertise in extracting and purifying active ingredients from biopharm crops. Their efforts are welcomed by civic leaders working to expand the local biotech economy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists doesn't want to halt this type of progress, Mellon said. But it does not believe the U.S. Agriculture Department is properly regulating it. The Union worries that biopharm crops will cross-pollinate with those meant for food production; or that biopharm seeds will inadvertently mix into the general-use supply.

"The USDA . . . has failed to allay concerns. The (oversight) system, despite being headed in the right direction, is still a work in progress. The piecemeal manner in which its provisions were issued make it unclear whether they are voluntary or mandatory," the UCS report said.

Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates biotech crops, said the agency's requirements "are pretty stringent now" — and they are in the process of being revised to keep up with advances in technology.

Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, said scientists must be free to experiment in open fields if they are to understand and develop biopharming techniques. These experiments are adequately controlled, and new genetic technology is increasing the number of ways in which crops can be produced without risk of cross-pollination, he said.

"A ban would significantly halt the technology of producing drugs more cheaply in plants" than through current methods, Beachy said. And if work on biopharming to grow industrial chemicals were halted, "then you have stopped another kind of advance that we're looking for to give an economic advantage to our farmers."

The Union's call for a ban goes further than the recommendations of the scientists it empaneled. The academics — including Henry Daniell, who developed the technology on which Chlorogen is based — simply say that much care must be taken. They present three possible paths, each with its own challenge:

Geographically isolate particular biopharm crops, corn or soybeans for example, from those grown for food use — but there might not be enough suitable land available.

Implement a biopharm production system entirely separate from commodity agriculture, from seed development and sales through harvest, distribution and processing — though this would be very expensive.

Limit biopharming to non-food crops, such as tobacco, guayule (which is used in rubber production), or jojoba (which produces oil for industrial purposes) — but much research would have to be done to understand and genetically modify these plants.

"All three of these will require some additional work and regulatory oversight in order to make sure that . . . there is virtually zero contamination of the food supply," said David Andow, a University of Minnesota entomologist and editor of the report.

Questions raised by the panel should be examined, Beachy said. "We need criticism and caution to be presented — but then we should allow the technology to respond appropriately and to meet the challenges (so) this whole area can move forward."

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