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Shifting the Risks of Biopharming,
Taking a "Dirty Industry" South?

Edmonds, Washington, Wednesday, February 12. The Edmonds Institute, a public interest, non-profit known for its work on biosafety, today warned about use of the Internet to find farmers in out-of-the-way places willing to grow pharm crops. "With bioengineered piglets going unapproved to market, with experimental crops contaminating 150 acres of corn and half a million bushels of soybeans, with an engineered corn unapproved for human consumption turning up all over the world, at a time when the environmental and human health problems posed by the so-called pharm crops desperately need the clear scientific light of day, people are brokering contract pharming deals on the web, " cautions Beth Burrows, Edmonds Institute President and Director.

Burrows is referring to "biopharming", the genetic engineering of organisms, such as crop plants, to produce substances they don't ordinarily produce, such as pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. Because of the danger of contamination of our food and feed supplies, "pharming" was the subject of a recent call for comment by the US Food and Drug Administration.

"The web middlemen tells companies to 'contact us if you see anyone (on our website list of growers) who might be in the right place to safely contract grow your crop for you'," notes Burrows, "and then they tempt farmers with the thought that, "(w)e would expect in order to get exactly the right location and conditions, Pharmaceutical Companies to lease land at up to 20 times 'commercial' rates for normal food crops."

Burrows adds, "The web brokers are offering what seems to be a perfect deal. Perfect, until you begin to wonder whether they're not shifting the risk and liability burden from pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies to those much less able to address and bear the potential health, environmental, and legal burdens of pharm crops."

Burrows points to Molecularfarming.com, a website that came to her notice via Indusfarming, an electronic digest that originates in India and focuses on the problems of agrarian peoples in the South Asia and Indus basin region. Late January, an article in Indusfarming heralded "Molecular farming. Contract growing opportunity".

The article announced a "global project, based in Europe," that aimed to "enable the future SAFE production of Biopharmaceuticals, Biodegradeable plastics, New Fibers and New Polymers in transgenic, NON-FOOD USE, genetically engineered molecular crops ." The article acknowledged that "there will be cross-contamination and Environmental risks" but foresaw a "huge future industry" for contract farmers able to grow "molecular crops" in greenhouses or in "'isolated', 'non-native', 'away from related food crop'" places. The article announced a "free to join Global Database of future potential growers, with the idea of introducing Biopharmaceutical companies with crops to grow to contract growers and farmers in safe locations."

Mentioning that they already "have a few Indian growers", the article called attention to the project's website www.molecularfarming.com and enjoined the reader to "explore the potential for you."

Burrows points out that, "This is an inducement to exactly the kind of 'pharming' that FDA and all the rest of us are concerned about, and doing it in out of the way places doesn't guarantee the safety of anything. "

Devinder Sharma, award-winning journalist and food system analyst based in New Delhi, saw the same article Burrows did, and commented:

"This is shocking indeed...This is part of the global design to translocate the dirty industry to the Third World. First, it was the translocation of toxic and hazardous waste recycling to developing countries (mainly South Asia and Africa). . .Then came the translocation of the flower industry, one of the dirtiest farming systems...to India, Kenya and Colombia...Now, it is the turn of bio-pharma crops. Even in the United States, there is tremendous problems with bio-pharma crops. So what do you do? Translocate this dirty industry to countries of South Asia."

According to the website - Molecularfarming.com - its "worldwide molecular farming database" was started in February, 2002. Since then, "potential growers" for "pharm" crops have been found in Canada, Ireland, Australia, Argentina, a dozen states of the USA, Scotland, England, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Korea, Greece, Turkey, Panama, Romania, Nigeria, and South Africa. The website owners also "have leads to a farmer's group in the Baltic Sea Islands" and" a contact for 147,000 acres in Guinea (in West Africa)."

Not surprised by the website, Sharma notes, "I am sure we will have a number of 'farmers' waiting on line to encash this opportunity."

Burrows admits that the website "offers an attractive package" but, she notes, "If you read it carefully, you see many, many safety problems. At best, they are talking about hoped-for solutions. They talk 'protection' but it's mostly talk about protection from gene flow in the field. That is not the only problem, not even the only environmental problem, posed by pharm crops."

In its recent draft Guidance for Industry regarding Drugs, Biologicas and Medical Devices Derived from Bioengineered Plants for Use in Humans and Animals, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised industry to "consider the potential environmental impact of all aspects of the manufacturing process, including but not limited to transport of seeds and plants, growing, harvesting, processing, purifying, packaging, storage, and disposal."

Looking at the molecularfarming website, Burrows worries that, "Aside from the risks that may be engendered by handling these crops, what about the risks from transporting these crops or accidents while processing these crops? Whose is the liability for the child in an out of the way place that picks and eats one of these strange new crops? And who is going to be sure that the farmer in out-of-the-way places are told all they need to know
about pharm crops and their problems and how to handle them. Who is going to help those out-of-the-way farmers obey whatever relevant laws may exist in their own counties? I find it noteworthy that one of the key questions the website asks farmers is, 'Has your property public liability insurance?'"

Molecularfarming.com does offers its readers translations into Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese but it admits that the translations are "not exact". Burrows wants to know, "Exactly what things aren't exactly well-explained, and what about the farmers who speak Hindi, or Parsi, or Arabic or Swahili? Who will explain to them the implications of the deal they are being offered? The unknowing farmers who find this website may not be so much bridging the digital divide as walking a digital plank. "

Devinder Sharma warns further, "It is time the civil society wakes up to these ecological dangers. We cannot allow the West to clean up its house and even its backyard and turn us into a rubbish bin."

 

Contact: The Edmonds Institute, 20319-92nd Avenue West, Edmonds, Washington 98020, USA, phone: 1-425-775-5383,email: beb@igc.org,

website: http://www.edmonds-institute.org

Contact: Beth Burrows - 425-775-5383

Other persons to contact on the issues :

Mr. Devinder Sharma, agricultural expert and journalist -
(in India) 91 (11) 25250494, email: dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in

Dr. Norman Ellstrand, University of California Riverside - professor of genetics and expert in gene flow - 909-787-4194

Dr. Michael Hansen, Consumers Union Policy Institute research and policy analyst - 914-378-2452