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
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
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:
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: email@example.com
Dr. Norman Ellstrand, University
of California Riverside - professor of genetics and expert in gene flow
Dr. Michael Hansen, Consumers
Union Policy Institute research and policy analyst - 914-378-2452