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Colorado doesn't have to grow drug corn, says farmer

by David Dechant

(Wednesday, May 28, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The Colorado activists are still fighting drug corn's introduction into Colorado. My best guess, is, however, that the bought-and-paid-for Colorado Republican administration will approve of it. In fact, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it isn't already planted, pre-approval.

The Iowa contractors are the Horan Bros. from Iowa.

Alan Foutz, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau president says of corn genetically engineered to produce drugs and enzymes: "Testing will happen! If Colorado denies this opportunity, companies are sure to make offers to our neighboring states. "

Yet, when I cornered him last spring at the Colorado Agriculture Forum, with Don Ament, state commissioner of agriculture, by his side, and I asked why Farm Bureau was taking the money Monsanto gets off the backs of farmers it prosecutes, he said, with Ament seconding: " Well, you don't have to plant patented seed if you don't want to."

That's true, but it's not that simple. Usually, if one wants to stay competitive, one has to adopt the new technology, even when the terms of adopting it are rotten.

So, in mocking Foutz and Ament, I would say, "Well, Colorado doesn't have to grow drug corn if it doesn't want to." But then they'll probably say, or already have said, " Oh, but we have to, or else someone else will grab the chance."

Hell, then let 'em grab it and let them be the Guinea Pig! If no one is forcing me to plant Monsanto patented seed, then no one is forcing anyone to plant drug corn in Colorado. Let the number two corn exporter, China, plant it.

David Dechant grows corn, wheat and alfalfa in Colorado.

Editor's notes: Dechant participated in a news conference this afternoon (May 28) on this issue. His and two other statements are below. After that is a press release from farm, environmental and consumer activists.

1. 3 statements made during May 28 news conference.

  • Jennifer Kemp, Director of Government Relations, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

    We called this press conference today to provide the perspective of those farm organizations in the state who are concerned about the introduction of biopharmaceutical crops into the state and the inability of the public to comment on this action.

    A number of organizations and businesses have expressed their concerns over this developing technology, and many farmers in our organizations have asked us to express these concerns to both the Governor and the Colorado Department of Agriculture. While the Department claims that it wants to hold a public process to review its own procedures for biopharm crop approvals, it has given every indication that it will approve this application before the public is given a chance to comment on the review procedure. We find this unacceptable as it sets a precedent for approving other applications without a publicly reviewed procedure in place. This is bad public policy.

    Rocky Mountain Farmers Union recently received a copy of the Meristem application that was forwarded to the Colorado Department of Agriculture from the United States Department of Agriculture. As expected, the permit had large pieces of information blackened out, supposedly to protect "Confidential Business Information." We realize that this is the procedural process that has been established by the USDA, however, we donít understand how a state department of agriculture is expected to make a well-rounded and considered decision, based on the unique farming conditions found in that state, without all of the relevant information.

    Likewise, while we are asked to trust that this is a safe technology, the review process does not appear to look at the issues of worker safety, impacts to the environment, particularly soil and water contamination, or the process for disposing of residual by-products from biopharm crop production. We are concerned that soil micro-organisms could incorporate biopharm genes through a process called horizontal gene transfer, resulting in new forms of bacteria and viruses that could have devastating effects to farming and human health. There are currently no requirements that soils be tested post harvest to prevent this form of contamination from happening. This is one requirement we would like to see incorporated into any biopharm permit approvals.

    Our organization is also concerned about the disposal procedures of by-products that may result from the production of these types of pharmaceuticals. One argument being made by some in the biopharmaceutical industry is that they can extract all of the pharmaceutical product found in the corn kernels, and that they should then be allowed to use the residue corn for food or feed products. Who is testing to insure that these residues wonít be contaminated? We hold the same concerns for the corn stalks and other plant materials which may not be processed. How are they disposed of? The introduced gene segment would presumably be found throughout the plant, so burying the residue or feeding it to animals may be unacceptable methods of disposal. Are these part of the permit requirements?

    Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is dedicated to helping farmers and ranchers remain on the land, and we work tirelessly to help rural communities find ways to not only survive, but thrive. Growing biopharmaceuticals may eventually prove to be a safe, economical venture for a handful of farmers. However, rather than hope that is the outcome, we want to insure that all farmers and their communities are not being asked to bear added risks, costs and liabilities on behalf of a technology that may prove to be too risky for open-air planting.

    Before rushing to embrace an industry which has caused substantial problems in the past, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union wants to see an appropriate regulatory scheme put into place that requires that research be done on the risks to human health and the environment, that allows for adequate public comment and which really considers the risks posed by this technology before any planting of biopharmaceutical crops occurs.

  • David Moeller, Staff Attorney, Farmersí Legal Action Group (FLAG), 651-223-5400 dmoeller@flaginc.org

    The Legal Liability Risks of Growing Biopharmaceuticals

    The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into commercial crop production has altered the risks farmers must consider when making decisions about buying seed and planting and marketing their crops. These include the possible loss of export markets and other marketing risks, as well as potential legal liability. Now with companies attempting to take the next step with the introduction of biopharming in Colorado, these same legal liability issues are exacerbated. These risks include possible tort claims arising from genetic drift and crop contamination that may occur. One scenario would be if biopharm corn cross-pollinated with neighboring conventional corn; the biopharmer could then be liable for trespass or nuisance since the farmerís corn pollen damaged the neighborís corn by having a biopharm trait show up where none was supposed to be. In addition, there could be contract-based liability claims if farmers do not adhere to biopharming contracts that specify production practices, such as where farmers can market their crops. Finally, as has been shown with the ProdiGene example where USDA discovered voluntary biopharmed corn growing the following season in a soybean field, farmers may incur regulatory liability if they, or the companies they are working for, do not follow federal and state regulations for the growing of biopharm crops. These regulatory violations could lead to significant contamination of food supplies with farmers incurring the liability for these damages.

    Another legal liability risk that is specific to growing biopharmaceuticals is that farmers will be unaware that their neighbors are growing these crops and that their conventional or organic crops may be unknowingly contaminated. In a non-biopharming situation, this occurred when farmers growing StarLink corn contaminated their neighbors through not following the prescribed buffer zones and other production requirements. With StarLink corn, the ensuing disruptions to farmers and the grain handling industry have resulted in lawsuits that were recently settled for millions of dollars to be paid out by Aventis.

    Lastly, I would point out that based on examples in the organic and biotech industries, how much legal liability will be incurred by farmers is uncertain, one thing that is certain is that companies will attempt to transfer any legal liability onto family farmers, who are often the least able to defend themselves.

  • David Dechant, Farmer, Ft. Lupton, Colo., Secretary of the American Corn Growers Association

    I heard Jim Miller of the Colo. Dept. of Ag. say on public radio last evening that trying to achieve a zero percent risk level with pharmaceutical corn isn't a realistic goal, though he certainly feels the risks can be minimized sufficiently.

    With this in mind, I ask, is trying to achieve zero percent contamination from pharmaceutical corn in corn meant for food or feed a realistic goal? If the answer is no, then we have no business at all growing pharmaceutical corn outdoors.

    This is not a standard imposed by the US government. It is the standard our export customers demand and a reality we must live up to if we don't want to see any more disruptions in our corn exports. Simply minimizing the contamination level isn't good enough. If random testing happens to find so much as one kernel of drug corn in a shipload corn bound for Japan or elsewhere, there will be major marketing disruptions.

    Moreover, our domestic customers have serious reservations about using corn to grow drugs. None other than the Grocery Manufacturers of America association wrote the FDA expressing its concerns about the "ability of current regulations to isolate and contain these products."

    And a little further down the food chain, the National Grain and Feed Association told the FDA it has "strong reservations regarding the likelihood of achieving zero contamination of existing grain and food supplies in the U.S. through a combination of corporate responsibility and regulatory control."

    In other words, our foreign and domestic customers are telling us, "we don't like the idea of using food and feed crops to grow drugs and we think it is too risky to do so outdoors."

    Conventional marketing wisdom tells us "the customer is always right." And until customers tell us they will accept some level of drug corn contamination, albeit a very tiny one, we should refrain from growing it outdoors. Though a relatively few corn farmers might make a little money becoming contract farmers for the Biotech companies, all farmers will pay when disrupted markets further cheapen corn prices. A mere ten-cent per bushel drop in corn price alone amounts to a whopping $1 billion on a probable 10 billion-bushel corn crop.

    A class action lawsuit against the Biotech company Aventis was recently settled. Because of the marketing disruptions its Starlink corn, unapproved for food in the US and unapproved for both food and feed in Japan, caused, it has to pay out $110 million to American corn farmers. However, many think the damage done to our markets was far greater.

    Moreover, the US regulatory system was just as much at fault as Aventis. Its requirements to prevent Starlink contamination were deficient to the point of outright negligence. So, its track record in keeping corn not meant for food out of the food supply is not very good.

    Finally, if those promoting the use of food crops to produce drugs know as little about assuring the safety of doing so as they do about marketing grain, then we are all in for some very big surprises when it comes to other important issues such as who takes liability if something goes wrong, what will be the effects upon wildlife and the environment, and so on.

2. News release/Action Alert

We need your help NOW to stop biopharming in Colorado!

In just 6 working days, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) will decide whether to approve the FIRST "pharmcrop" here. Crops that make drugs will inevitably contaminate of food and poison of wildlife; they may make farmers exposed to the crops sick; and they could even contaminate soil, water and air with drugs!

French pharmaceutical company Meristem Therapeutics (MT) has genetically engineered corn to make lipase, a powerful enzyme which can be toxic when inhaled or eaten in quantity. They want to plant it at a secret location in northeast Colorado, and they have hired contractors from Iowa to plant and harvest the corn, which will then be shipped back to France for processing into drugs.

MT has told CDA nothing about how much lipase will be in this corn, and how much might injure wildlife, or if it will end up in soil, water or pollen. They will do nothing to keep raccoons, geese, or bees out of the fields.

MT has not told CDA what if anything they will do with the leftover stalks, leaves and roots, which will also produce lipase; if the lipase will leak from the plants roots into soil, or how long it might last in the environment.

This radical misuse of agriculture isn't even necessary! MT can make lipase safely, inside buildings in France, in sealed fermentation vessels. But to save money, they want to do it in Colorado farm crops. Why aren't they growing pharmcrops in France? It would be illegal there!

Amazingly, Governor Owens has bought the corporate hype that this is safe and that it will be a financial windfall for Colorado farmers. But the money makers are Iowa contractors and a French drug company! And what will happen to Colorado agriculture when "pharmcorn" contaminates our produce?

YOU CAN DO TWO THINGS TO HELP:

  • Write to the newspapers to tell them what a stupid idea this is. You'll find their email address on the editorial page. To get your letter published, keep it short, and to the point.
  • Tell Governor Owens you don't want drugs in Colorado crops. Here's how to reach him:

    The Hon. Gov. Bill Owens
    136 State Capitol
    Denver, CO 80203-1792
    Phone: 303-866-2471 Fax: (303) 866-2003 E-mail address: governorowens@state.co.us