A "pharm crop" mishap in Nebraska has made strange bedfellows of the anti-GMO crowd and pro-biotech food industry associations, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America, that fear possible food-supply contamination.
"We just had our Three Mile Island," said Craig Winters, referring to the 1979 nuclear reactor accident in Pennsylvania where catastrophe was narrowly averted. "Now, the question is: Can we avoid a Chernobyl?"
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said her agency will review guidelines regulating companies experimenting with food crops that are genetically altered to produce drugs or industrial agents.
The USDA is being pressured by food industry associations to strengthen both planting and monitoring restrictions. GMA spokesman Gene Grabowski said the food industry advocates zero tolerance of the use of food crops in these experiments. But nonfood crops, such as tobacco, could still pass altered genes by hybridization, said Winters, executive director of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods. Winters said he doubts that even greenhouse confinement would be enough to contain GM crops.
"We're not sure where the USDA will land on this one," Winters said. Veneman's agency has been supportive of biotechnology, and she once served on the board of Calgene Inc., the company that developed the Flavr Savr tomato, the first genetically engineered food to be sold in the United States.
In November, 500 bushels of soybeans contaminated with corn genetically engineered to produce either a drug not yet approved for human use, such as a blood-clotting agent or a hepatitis vaccine, or an industrial adhesive, were delivered to a Nebraska grain elevator. The USDA discovered the contamination and ordered Prodigene Inc., a Dallas-based biotech firm, to destroy the entire 500,000-bushel soybean pile, valued at $2.7 million.
In response, the Biotechnology Industry Organization announced that its member companies would no longer grow pharm crops, which are usually altered corn plants, in cornbelt states. However, the group ran into opposition from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and backed off of the geographic moratorium.
The soybean mishap is reminiscent of the debacle two years ago in which a gene-altered corn variety called Starlink, which was not approved for human consumption, mixed with approved corn and found its way into consumer products, such as taco shells, nationwide.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 1