US biotech industry holds off on planting some crops
WASHINGTON - The U.S. biotech industry said yesterday it would voluntarily stop growing some gene-spliced crops in the Midwest and Plains states to ease fears of accidental contamination of food or animal feed.
The self-imposed directive, which goes beyond any current government regulation, comes as the industry continues to lick its wounds from the StarLink biotech corn incident two years ago.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization said its members have agreed to plant crops bioengineered for pharmaceutical and industrial purposes far away from their traditional counterparts.
These biotech crops, which may be implanted with proteins from other plants, animals or even humans, are designed to produce antibodies for treating diseases such as cancer and Parkinson\'s disease.
\"In an era post-StarLink, which grain handlers and food processors have vivid memories of, we want to give them every assurance that with this new technology they won\'t have any concerns,\" said Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for the trade group.
In September 2000, Starlink corn, approved only for animal feed, was found to have been mixed with crops that were used in human food. The finding sparked a nationwide recall of corn chips and taco shells out of concern that StarLink may cause allergic reactions.
Agribusinesses lost millions of dollars in lost sales and for the cost of recovering the contaminated shipments.
A handful of U.S. biotech companies are field testing pharmaceutical crops in the hopes of marketing them within the next three years.
\"We want to make sure none of these (pharmaceutical) crops are in any area that is a major crop-producing area,\" Dry said.
The industry said it would not plant pharmaceutical and industrial crops in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, most of Missouri and parts of Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kentucky. Most of these crops were already being planted in field trials away from major food-growing regions, Dry said.
One company that will be relocating some of its commercial fields is ProdiGene Inc., a private company based in College Station, Texas.
ProdiGene this year planted in the Midwest a biotech corn variety that produces trypsin, a protein used in manufacturing insulin. In the future, \"it won\'t be grown in the Corn Belt,\" said Robert Dose, the company\'s vice president.
Dose said the company will incur some costs with the changes, but it supports the moratorium \"to make sure another debacle doesn\'t happen.\"
The ban on pharmaceutical crops in food-growing regions was first mentioned last month in a draft of industry guidelines proposed by the U.S. Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration. Other recommendations include manufacturing tests to detect the biotech crop and strict guidelines to ensure they are sufficiently controlled.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization \"supports these efforts, and believes that many of the recommendations made in the draft guidance should be mandatory,\" Dry said.
The USDA regulates biotech testing standards and reviews product safety in animals. The FDA is responsible for monitoring the safety of biotech foods and medicines for consumers. The Environmental Protection Agency also gets involved in regulating gene-spliced crops that produce their own pesticides.
Environmental groups said the industry actions didn\'t go far enough.
\"Just one mistake from a biotech company and we could be eating other people\'s prescription drugs in our corn flakes,\" said Mark Helm, spokesman for Friends of the Earth. The group has urged USDA to ban all \"open air\" plantings of pharmaceutical crops.
Story by Randy Fabi
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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