Montrose, CO, Monday,
March 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news: Farmers face many
hurdles to sowing genetically altered seeds for the pharmaceutical
industry, but some believe it's still worthy of study.
"I think farmers, as a whole, have to find something
better than what they're doing, because we're starving ourselves
to death," said Lynn Harvey, a farmer at Yellowjacket
near the Four Corners area.
Colorado is primed for the emerging industry that uses genetically
modified plants to produce compounds for pharmaceutical products,
said industry and regulatory officials at an informational
meeting this week in Montrose.
"It doesn't look like there will be any of this produced
by farmers in Colorado in 2003. We do know that there are
farmers that are talking about it with (pharmaceutical) companies,
particularly on the Front Range, about producing it in 2004,"
said Jim Rubingh, director of market division at the Colorado
Department of Agriculture.
Strict federal regulations may be the biggest hurdle for
small farms in western Colorado.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the farming
of pharmaceutical plants, requiring permits and on-site inspections
when they are planted in open fields, said Dr. Margaret Jones,
a USDA biotechnologist. It also requires a "safety assessment,"
and state officials must concur with the USDA's conclusions
before planting commences.
But the USDA keeps secret the locations of pharmaceutical
crops because of past vandalism, Jones said, and plans never
to release its oversight of such plants.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees production
of pharmaceuticals from the plant material.
"Corn seems the most likely pharmaceutical crop to be
grown in Colorado," said Dr. Tom Holtzer, head of the
Department of BioAgriculture, Science and Pest Management
at Colorado State University.
The biotechnical industry is searching for appropriate growing
sites outside the Corn Belt, where a $3 million soybean crop
was contaminated with pharmaceutical corn in Iowa.
Some residents fear genetically altered corn could harm the
region's agriculture industry.
Sweet corn is a major component of the local economy, and
other crops could be at risk, such as organic foods, reported
activist group Uncompahgre Valley Association.
The full impact of pharmaceutical crops is not yet understood,
said Dr. Chuck Benbrook, an agriculture industry consultant.
"I think there will be a lot of blind alleys and disappointments
as we learn more about how this can be done," Benbrook
Genetic materials from pharmaceutical plants are banned from
food supplies and livestock feed by the USDA.
The USDA also mandates a one-mile zone of isolation from
other corn to prevent contamination with genetically altered
material. It also requires a 21-day delay in planting, so
genetically altered plants release pollen later.
The mandatory isolation may prevent many farmers from growing
the crops, and many high-altitude farms have growing seasons
that are too short to delay planting, farmers said.
CSU researchers showed corn pollen from two test plots turned
up in surrounding corn plants no further than 600 feet from
the source, Holtzer said.
Corn has no wild relatives that can be contaminated by drifting
pollen, he said. Its pollen can also be nearly eliminated
by removing tassels or making the plants sterile.
Benbrook said there is little knowledge about what genetically
modified plants may do to vital organisms in the soil or how
they will react in stressed environments such as drought.
"I think it is the height of naivete to think we understand
everything that's needed to predict how genetically altered
plants are going to behave," he said.
Despite potential drawbacks, genetically modified plants
can produce compounds for a number of important pharmaceutical
products, including medicines for treating cancer, HIV, heart
disease and diabetes.
"It will cost about a quarter to one-half less to produce
plant-based pharmaceuticals than it costs to produce from
mammalian cell cultures," said Dr. Susan Harlander, president
of BIO- rational Consultants Inc.
Genetically modified plants could cut costs and boost access
to pharmaceutical drugs, Harlander said. A treatment for rheumatoid
arthritis had a waiting list of 13,000 people in March 2002
because of limited-production capacity, which could be boosted
by pharmaceutical plants, she said.
However, relatively little cropland is needed to produce
pharmaceutical materials. For some drugs, 100 acres would
provide material to supply millions of people, Harlander said.
Despite the hurdles aired at the meeting, some Western Slope
farmers were still interested in exploring pharmaceutical
Farmers should be able to overcome the tough production requirements,
such as cleaning every seed from implements to prevent off-site
contamination, said Joe Mahaffey, a Yellowjacket farmer.
"It may be (a viable option) where we are," said
Aaron Porter can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.