The next wave of genetic engineering includes plants that have been altered to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. An ear of corn could actually be a biological factory for substances never intended for the food supply. A new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study finds that current production practices and federal regulations do not protect against contamination from these crops.
In the spring of 2003, the Union of Concerned Scientists convened an expert workshop on protecting the U.S. food and feed supply from contamination by crops genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. The experts who participated in that workshop wrote the technical report A Growing Concern: Protecting the Food Supply in an Era of Pharmaceutical and Industrial Crops independently of UCS, which developed policy recommendations based on its own analysis of this report.
The Experts’ Technical Report
Food crops, primarily corn, are currently being genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. These crops are referred to as “pharma” crops when they produce drugs, hormones, and other therapeutic agents, and industrial crops when they produce compounds such as plastics for use in industry. Throughout our report, the term pharma crop is used to encompass both types.
Many pharma and industrial products could harm humans, livestock, or wildlife if ingested in active forms.
There are two major routes by which pharmaceutical and industrial transgenes can inadvertently contaminate commodity crops and, therefore, the food and feed supply: physical mixing of seed (pharma seed can be inadvertently spilled or mixed during seed production, harvest, storage, transport, and handling) and pollen (pollen containing genes for the pharma product can pollinate commodity crops, leading to contamination during the growing year).
Given the dilemma of potential benefits versus potential contamination of the food supply, we addressed the question-Is it possible to design a system for producing pharma products in genetically engineered corn or soybean-two plants often used or proposed for pharma production in the United States-without contaminating human food or animal feed? By promoting a virtually zero contamination standard, we advocate for pharma crop production to be conducted in such a way that the likelihood of contamination would be so low as to be nearly zero.
- Eliminate as many steps as possible in each of the seed development, seed production, crop production, and handling, storage, and delivery operations.
- Develop corn and soybean production and management systems that will ensure virtually zero contamination of the food and feed supplies through collaboration between industry, academia, and regulatory bodies. If broad-based consensus cannot be reached, it would be inadvisable to initiate further use of corn and soybean as pharma crops.
- Develop the infrastructure and information needed to implement, and maintain pharma crop production in areas geographically isolated from commodity crops. Specifically, synthesize studies of pollen flow, isolation, and crop production areas to determine whether further research is needed to establish the scientific basis for geographic isolation zones.
- Develop strategies that would allow individual growers or groups of growers to develop case-by-case plans for well-defined spatially separated production areas embedded within commodity production areas. These strategies would need to meet the specific management, separation, confinement and oversight objectives outlined above.
- Encourage research on non-food/feed crops as potential pharma crops.
- Develop the information and technology necessary for pharma crop production in non-food/feed crops as soon as possible to ensure virtually zero contamination of the food/feed supply and enable pharma crop production to succeed. This may require some research incentives, as our genetic engineering expertise with other crops is not on the same level as corn and soybean.
Conclusions and Policy Recommendations of the Union of Concerned Scientists
UCS carefully reviewed the technical report A Growing Concern: Protecting the Food Supply in an Era of Pharmaceutical and Industrial Crops and developed its own conclusions and policy recommendations. We strongly agree with the experts’ major conclusion that corn and soybean cannot be used for pharma crop production without major changes designed to protect our food system from contamination.
- Since contamination of the food supply is likely to be ongoing, we believe that pharma crops should not continue to be developed.
Considering the serious potential health and economic consequences of a contamination event, UCS recommends that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) halt the outdoor production of genetically engineered pharma and industrial crops immediately, until a system is put in place that can produce drugs and industrial substances without putting our food system and food industry at risk.
- UCS also recommends that the USDA explore the indoor cultivation of engineered food and feed crops to produce drugs and industrial chemicals.
- The best way to reap the benefits of pharma crops and simultaneously protect the food system is to stop now and begin investing in other methods of biopharmaceutical production such as alternative crops and fermentation and cell culture systems. Therefore, UCS recommends that the USDA spearhead a major campaign to encourage and fund alternatives to the use of food and feed crops in pharma and industrial crop production, particularly the search for suitable non-food/feed crops. We agree with the experts that this effort should begin as soon as possible and should include incentives that enable scientists to explore new crops and agronomic systems.