Seattle Post-Intelligencer (pg. B24)  [Printer-friendly version]
Feb. 24, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The biotech industry is playing a reckless
game of Russian roulette -- but they've got the gun pointed at the
public's heads, not their own. If ever there was a technology needing
a precautionary approach, "biopharming" is it.]

By Trudy Bialic

Ask the people around you if they want experimental drugs and
industrial chemicals in their food or beer -- without their knowledge
or consent. Chances are they'll say no. Then tell them experiments
that could make that happen are occurring right here in Washington

As you read this, a professor at Washington State University and a
private Canadian company, SemBioSys, have applied for permits to turn
two common food crops -- barley and safflower -- into virtual
factories for synthetic drugs or chemicals.

On its Web site, SemBioSys declares its plan to inject safflower with
human genes to produce experimental insulin and a drug for heart
attacks and strokes. WSU confirms that it plans to grow barley,
injected with human genes, to produce artificial proteins with
pharmaceutical properties. Where these fields will be is secret;
nearby farmers and residents won't be notified.

Proponents say that injecting human genes into plants (or animals)
will provide cheaper drugs -- someday. But this so-called
"biopharming" has met with considerable opposition.

In California and Missouri, farmers protested and effectively stopped
outdoor cultivation of "pharma rice," concerned that the drug-plants
would contaminate their food-grade crops and make them unmarketable.
Food companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Kraft Foods, as well as the
Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Products Association,
concur. The risks are more than hypothetical. Several cases of cross-
contamination from GE crops have cost farmers and the food industry
more than a billion dollars in recalls and lost export markets.

The National Academy of Sciences, a nongovernmental body of scientists
and professionals, has warned in two reports that it's virtually
impossible to keep biopharms out of the food supply if food crops are
used to grow them. Insects, birds, animals, wind, storms, trucks,
trains and human error see to that.

Pharma crops are supposed to be rigorously regulated. But the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) does not review biopharmaceutical crops
before planting, even though many of them have toxic or anti-
nutritional effects on human health or the environment.

A recent audit by the US Department of Agriculture's Inspector General
found the USDA failed to inspect field trial sites as promised and
didn't even know where some experiments were planted. The Inspector
General also found that USDA didn't follow up to find out what
happened to the biopharm harvests. Two tons of a drug-laden crop was
stored for more than a year at two sites without USDA's knowledge or

What's the risk of cross-contamination from these experiments? State
legislators at least should order a thorough risk assessment and allow
public comment.

Washington's Barley Commission is aware that WSU is biopharming barley
and is strongly opposed. Administrator Mary Sullivan says, "Once those
genetically altered genes are out there, there'll be GMOs in the

No one's opposed to less expensive and effective drugs, but
biopharming in food crops in open fields is a bad financial risk.
Several leading biopharm companies have gone bankrupt. When Large
Scale Biology went bankrupt -- it was the first to conduct a field
trial in 1991 -- even biotech movers and shakers contemplated the
demise of the biopharming concept.

Agriculture and the food industry are the largest employers and the
greatest source of revenue in Washington state -- more than Microsoft
and Boeing combined. WSU and SemBioSys should not be mixing drugs and
food. They should cancel these risky experiments immediately.

If they want to produce plant-based drugs, they should follow the lead
of Dow AgroScience, which just announced approval of a vaccine for
chickens produced by tobacco cell cultures in a contained steel tank.
Cell cultures are a proven way to generate pharmaceuticals under
controlled laboratory conditions -- without the risk of untested drugs
in our food.

Trudy Bialic is editor of Sound Consumer, a publication of PCC Natural
Markets -- the largest, consumer-owned natural foods retailer in the
United States.