US food chain and environment at risk
London/Washington, 15th November, 2002 - Greenpeace today warned that contamination in the food chain from crops genetically engineered (GE) to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial proteins is not likely to be a one-off incident. Reacting to news that the US government is currently recalling from the food chain 500,000 bushels of soybeans contaminated with a drug-producing maize variety Greenpeace highlighted the fact that open field trials are currently being carried out in hundreds of locations throughout the heart of US farming regions. While the GE industry is already producing drugs and proteins for industrial use in rice, wheat, maize and barley, few regulations to protect public health and the environment are in place (1).
Although the exact variety of the maize has not been disclosed to the public, the contaminated supplies are believed to contain a pharmaceutical protein called trypsin used, amongst other things, in the manufacturing of insulin for treatment of diabetes. The maize is not approved for human consumption nor for animal feed.
"There is just no excuse to allow drug producing crops to be grown out in the fields where they can contaminate the environment and food chain by spreading their genes to wild plants and to conventional crops growing nearby. All GE ‘pharm’ crops currently out there should be banned and all trials stopped immediately," said Dr. Doreen Stabinsky from Greenpeace.
This incident demonstrates how GE crops, once released into the environment, cannot be controlled. In this case genetic contamination spread both in the fields and later in the food storage facilities.
The “pharm crop” in question comes from a Texas-based biotechnology company, ProdiGene, which has a history of mishandling its “pharm” crops twice in the past three months resulting in contamination of the food supply with unapproved, drug- producing crops (1).
The cost of withdrawing large amounts of soybeans is initially estimated to be about 2.7 million US dollars. The incident also raises fears of further contamination of US food exports. Two years ago, a gene-altered maize variety called StarLink, which is not approved for human consumption, had to be recalled world-wide causing damages estimated 1 billion US dollars.
(1) An expert committee of the US National Academy of Sciences said recently that "It is possible that crops transformed to produce pharmaceutical or other industrial compounds might mate with plantations grown for human consumption, with the unanticipated result of novel chemicals in the human food supply." ["Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation," Committee on Environmental Impacts Associated with Commercialisation of Transgenic Plants of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy Press 2002, p. 68.]
(2) In September, ProdiGene was forced to pull up and incinerate a 155 acre maize area in Iowa, when government (USDA) regulators noticed that pollen from the maize might be contaminating nearby fields. USDA officials have acknowledged it was possible that pollen from the “pharm” maize could have contaminated neighbouring fields. ProdiGene contracts farmers thorough-out the US via its Nebraska based seed company Stauffer Seeds. When a farmer grows a ProdiGene crop, the company takes care of harvesting and processing. Stauffer has recently been advertising to recruit farmers promising up to $1 over the current market price for the crop as well as saying “No Change in Current Farming Practices” was necessary.