Contamination of crops with GMO-based plant materials triggers alarm

Nov. 15, 2002, After reporting two separate incidents where its plant-produced pharmaceuticals have mixed with other grains, biotech company ProdiGene is facing investigations by the US Department of Agriculture USDA).

The use of food crops to grow special proteins and compounds for pharmaceuticals is now being questioned. Food companies have asked the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to stop the practice. Environmental groups have long warned possible risks from inadvertent mixing of plant components as a human health issue. One route would be possible allergic reactions if the bio-tech crops – which would look like generic corn or soybeans – were used for food.

“Deeply concerned” is how the National Food Processors Association – which includes General Mills, Kellogg and Del Monte – felt about the incidents.

Karil Kochenderfer, the association’s environmental director, said, “We strongly urge the biotech industry to direct its substantial research capabilities into investigating the use of nonfood crops for the development of pharmaceuticals,” according to Reuters news wire.

The USDA quarantined 500,000 bushels of soybeans – worth about $2.7 million -- in Nebraska this week on news that fragments of ProdiGene bio-corn may have been mixed in. The soybeans grew in a field where the proprietary bio-corn crop had failed, then been disked down to make way for re-planting with the beans. Federal authorities have ordered the beans destroyed. No dollar value has been announced.

The USDA ordered ProdiGene to burn 155 acres of soybeans in a similar incident reported in Iowa in September.

If ProdiGene is found to have violated any federal regulation in the incidents, it could face fines of up to $500,000 per violation, with officers facing a year of jail time, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Between the two episodes of escaped genetically altered crops, the U.S. biotech industry had announced that it would voluntarily stop growing some GMO crops in the Midwest and Plains states to ease fears that food crops could be contaminated. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) said it would not plant industrial or pharmaceutical crops in Illinois, Iowa, most of Missouri, and parts of Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kentucky, Reuters reported in late October.

A spokeman said at the time that most of the pharma-crops were intentionally being planted in field trials away from major food-growing areas. However, the fields are not distinguishable from traditional corn crops, raising alarm among small-scale grower who depend on genetic purity for organic production or heirloom seed integrity.

ProdiGene’s vice president, Robert Dose, said the company will cease Corn-Belt production of biotech corn altered to produce trypsin, a protein used in manufacturing insulin, Reuters reported.

The biotech trade group’s ban on growing in the Corn Belt was first mentioned in a list of suggestions from the USDA and FDA. Also on the list were recommendations to include manufacturing tests to detect biotech crops an strict guidelines to ensure they are sufficiently controlled.

Friends of the Earth has urged the USDA to ban all “open air” plantings of pharma-crops, saying a mistake by a biotech company could result in consumers “eating other people’s presecription drugs in our corn flakes.”

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