Known as "biopharming
," the great promise of this technology emerged about 15 years ago, with clinical trials of vaccines and drugs produced in bananas, tomatoes, and tobacco.
The decision represents the first federal court ruling ever on "biopharming
," the practice of genetically altering food crops to produce experimental drugs and industrial compounds.
Biotechnology firms have been seeking federal approval for outdoor plantings, often called "biopharming" because the idea is to lower drug-making costs by using plants to grow medications.
Biopharming has been growing for a decade despite continued attacks from genetic engineering foes who fear such work has not been studied enough to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply if accidental mixing occurs.
Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist at UCS and the report's co-author, says that now, in addition to GMO contamination, "among the potential contaminants are genes from crops engineered to produce drugs, plastics, and vaccines." When it comes to these new recombinant pharmaceutical and industrial proteins, experts like Bill Freese, a research analyst for Friends of the Earth (FOE) and author of an FOE report on biopharming, says there can be nothing less than "zero tolerance" for contamination of the human food supply.
There is nothing in the pending protocols or in the field practices currently being used by biopharming companies that would require them to take precautions against exposing wildlife to these novel proteins, such as netting to protect the health of birds or prevent them from transporting the grain to other rice fields.
The highly innovative Norwalk vaccine, which is grown in tomatoes and administered in pills that contain powder derived from freeze-dried tomatoes, is just the latest development in a mushrooming new field known by the punny name "biopharming."
But biopharming's great promise lies in using gene-splicing techniques to make old plants do radically new things.
The Genetically Engineered Food Alert Campaign, a coalition of activist groups, has called for an end to open-air biopharming
. Their demands grew louder last year after an incident in which a small quantity of biopharm corn engineered to include a vaccine against diarrhea in pigs came close to entering the food supply.
Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service--which has been criticized for lax oversight of pharmaceutical crop experiments, commonly known as "biopharming"--said, "It's isolated, it's in one location, it's not being moved." That same week, however, it was revealed that ProdiGene had been ordered, just two months earlier, to burn 155 acres of corn from an Iowa field where stray biotech plants had "jumped the fence" and contaminated conventional corn crops.
Farm and food activists worry that the events of fall 2002 will be little more than a bump in the road to the brave new world of biopharming.
is a great opportunity to add significant value to farm production," Howell says, citing predictions that the market for crops producing protein-based biopharmaceuticals will increase from $26 billion in 2000 to $100 billion by 2010.