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KAI RYSSDAL: Agriculture officials today unveiled a new compliance program for companies that want to grow genetically modified crops. It's a voluntary effort, the agency says, and it's aimed at helping biotech companies comply with the rules for field-testing GMO products.
It's a growing industry, and it includes a whole new generation of plants aimed at producing not food, but medicine. They're commonly known as "pharma-crops" and the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues permits to grow them on a case-by-case basis.
Last year, only 200 acres of these crops were planted in the U.S., and none have come to market yet as pharmaceuticals. But as Sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner tells us, it's enough to sow the seeds for a battle between two very powerful industries.
SARAH GARDNER: Biotech companies have been growing small test fields of pharma-crops since the early '90s. You might think of them as outdoor biotech factories -- scientists take ordinary crops like corn and soybeans, inject them with human or animal genes, and later extract the proteins these plants produce to make medicines. Promoters of so-called bio-pharming hold out the promise of a bumper crop of cheaper pharmaceuticals -- everything from vaccines for Hepatitis B to insulin.
ANDREW BAUM: It's anywhere between 40 and 80 percent less expensive.
Andrew Baum is CEO of SemBioSys Genetics. His Calgary-based company is growing human insulin in safflowers. Baum says growing drug proteins in plants instead of expensive fermentation factories dramatically cuts costs and increases supply. And that not only spells corporate profits, but savings to patients.
BAUM: We will enable people to gain access to insulin who today can't get it, because it's either too expensive or there's literally not enough supply globally.
But the prospect of cheaper pharmaceuticals doesn't mollify the $400-billion food industry. It's worried these drug-producing crops will accidentally stray into the food supply through things like wind borne pollen or accidentally scattered seeds.
Right now, the government does restrict where, when and how pharma-crops are planted and inspected. But food companies are pushing the government to regulate pharma-crops more aggressively when it issues new rules for genetically-modified crops next year.
JEFF BARACH: Don't even consider food crops.
Jeff Barach is vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association. He says until it can guarantee no cross-contamination, the government should restrict pharma-crops to non-food plants like tobacco. Better yet, he suggests, contain them in greenhouses. He says food safety and consumer confidence are key.
BARACH: And that's where you get kind of the "yuk factor" or the consumer reaction. And the perception can greatly impact the brand names of our different member companies.
Beer maker and rice buyer Anheuser-Busch was worried enough to threaten a boycott of Missouri rice a few years ago. A biotech company had planned a test field of pharma-rice in southeast Missouri for an anti-diarrhea drug. Ventria Biosciences ended up moving its fields to Kansas instead. But rice growers still fear expensive recalls -- or worse, a collapse in their markets -- if pharma-rice slipped into their supplies. And they have environmental allies.
KAREN STILLERMAN: I think the bottom line is that nobody wants to wake up one morning and find there's a drug in their breakfast cereal.
Karen Stillerman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says accidents can happen. Five years ago, a company called ProdiGene got in trouble after its pig vaccine-producing corn ended up in a Nebraska soybean field.
STILLERMAN: It all went to a grain elevator, and in the end a half a million bushels of soybeans had to be destroyed -- and it was only discovered at the last moment.
Biotech companies and many scientists contend that trace amounts of pharma-crops in the food supply would very likely be harmless to consumers. But none of these crops has undergone government food safety tests. Jeff Barach of the Grocery Manufacturers says that would be the prudent course, just in case a vaccine-producing soybean does wind up in somebody's corn flakes.
I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.