The Three Mile Island of Biotech?

Mike Friedman mikedf at
Sun Dec 22 22:25:55 MST 2002

The Nation
December 30, 2002

The Three Mile Island of Biotech?


Hamilton County, Nebraska, is where food comes from.
You can visit the Plainsman Museum on Highway 14 to
learn about "farm life from the 1880s to the 1950s," or
you can just drive on up the highway and learn about
farm life in 2002 at any of the dozens of family farms
that still grow corn and soybeans on fields that some
families have worked since their ancestors homesteaded
here just after the Civil War. For more than a century,
farmers in this fertile stretch of a state where folks
still refer to themselves as "cornhuskers" have planted
food crops each spring and trucked the harvest in the
fall to towering grain elevators on the edge of the
bustling Great Plains town of Aurora. Those grains
become the cereals, the breads, the cake mixes and the
soy patties that feed America and the world.

This fall, however, the predictable patterns of
Hamilton County and American food production took on
the characteristics of a dystopian science-fiction
story. An area farmer, who a year earlier had
supplemented his income by quietly planting a test plot
with seed corn genetically modified to produce proteins
containing powerful drugs for treatment of diarrhea in
pigs, this year harvested soybeans for human
consumption from the same field. He trucked them off to
the Aurora Co-op, where they were mixed with soybeans
from other fields throughout the county in preparation
for production as food. Just as the soybeans were about
to begin their journey to the nation's dinner plates, a
routine inspection of the test field by US Department
of Agriculture inspectors revealed that corn plants
that should have been completely removed were still
growing in the field from which the soybeans had been
harvested--raising the prospect that the pharmaceutical
crop had mingled with the food crop.

Suddenly, as they say in Aurora, all kinds of hell
broke loose. In November, USDA investigators swooped
into town to order the lockdown of a warehouse filled
with 500,000 bushels of food-grade soybeans that had
been contaminated by contact with the beans containing
remnants of the pharmaceutical corn. Aurora Co-op
managers quietly secured the soybeans. But when word of
the incident leaked out, Greenpeace campaigners climbed
a tall white elevator to unfurl a banner that read:
"This Is Your Food on Drugs!" Agitated officials of the
Grocery Manufacturers of America expressed "concerns
about the possible adulteration of the US food supply."
Consumer groups made unfavorable comparisons between
the incident in Hamilton County and the last great
genetically engineered food debacle, which occurred two
years ago when GE StarLink corn that had been approved
solely for animal feed turned up in taco shells, chips
and other food products.

Biotech industry groups and the government agencies
with which they have worked closely to promote the
increased use of genetically modified organisms in food
crops rushed to assure consumers that all was well.
Anthony Laos, CEO of ProdiGene, the Texas biotech
company that has made Aurora ground zero for
experiments in putting drugs into food, and that faced
a possible $500,000 fine and the loss of its testing
permit, promised to cover the $2.8 million cost of the
contaminated crops. Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service--
which has been criticized for lax oversight of
pharmaceutical crop experiments, commonly known as
"biopharming"--said, "It's isolated, it's in one
location, it's not being moved." That same week,
however, it was revealed that ProdiGene had been
ordered, just two months earlier, to burn 155 acres of
corn from an Iowa field where stray biotech plants had
"jumped the fence" and contaminated conventional corn


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