Dec. 12, 2005 – Small farmers and small Midwestern towns looking to prime the economic pump are unlikely to do so by growing genetically engineered crops for use in drug production, despite pharmaceutical marketing claims stating otherwise, an academic study released last week said.
Commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Economics of Pharmaceutical Crops: Potential Benefits and Risks for Farmers and Rural Communities found that small farmers engaged in what is known as "bio-pharming," raising genetically engineered crops to be used in drug production, are unlikely to have enough collective or market strength to negotiate effectively with drug-making giants like Merck. Common bio-pharm crops range from food crops like corn and soybeans to tobacco and other inedible plants.
Opponents of bio-pharming warn that genetically engineering plants to produce drugs threatens the water and food supplies. Information revealed by a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency employee earlier this year appears to support the contention that chemical runoff in soil is a threat to both the food supply and the ecosystem.
Studies directly linking pharmaceutical contamination to bio-pharming are inconclusive, but there have been a few noted accidents, in which crops engineered to produce drugs spontaneously grew in fields of food crops. Contaminated yields then had to be destroyed.
In 2002, for instance, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) found modified corn growing in an Iowa soybean field at a site used for pharma crop testing the previous year by the biotechnology company ProdiGene. Since the corn had already pollinated, the USDA ordered that all corn for 155 acres around be uprooted and incinerated.
The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that because of the potential ecological damage and the lack of a clear economic benefit, farmers and farming communities should "carefully examine the pharmaceutical industryâ€™s rosily optimistic, but unsubstantiated, portrayal of this new technologyâ€™s economic rewards."