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Biopharma: Crops that produce drugs

Biopharma: A New Industry in which Pharmaceutical Companies use our Crops to Produce Pharmaceutical Drugs

     Most of the prescription drugs that we use originally came from some type of plant. The pharmaceutical manufacturer always tries to find the active ingredient, synthesize the compound in the lab, and make it into a form for human use. There are two distinct advantages to this process. In the first place the cost of producing a chemical in a lab is thousands times cheaper than growing acres and acres of crops and then using a complicated process to extract the active ingredient in the herbs that produce the therapeutic action. Secondly the process saves the planet. Consider all the drugs we use. Imagine if they all had to be extracted from plants and grown on farms. There would barely be enough land left to grow food. Furthermore, monocropping usually requires a large degree of herbicides and pesticide, leaving residuals and creating toxic run-off.

As much as we hate the huge pharmaceutical manufacturers at least they have left our farmland alone. However, huge changes are taking place that could contaminate our farmland and possibly destroy our food supply.

When we find a plant that contains a therapeutically active substance such as Red Rice Yeast, which lowers cholesterol, we find the active ingredient and synthesize the compound into in a class of drugs known as statins. But some substances cannot be synthesized and that group is made up of human insulin, some anticoagulants and blood substitutes and some vaccine proteins for diseases such as cholera.

In these cases we have the pharmaceutical manufacturers making applications to the Department of Agriculture. So far in the United States there have been more than 100 applications to grow so-called biopharma crops of corn, soybeans, barley, rice safflower and tobacco.

These genetically modified plants are engineered to produce specific substances such as human insulin and instead of being produced safely within the confines of a laboratory, they are being grown outside in huge fields in which ordinary looking plants contain huge amounts of toxic chemicals and can be mistaken for food by animals, insects and even other human beings.

Furthermore, because they are in open fields, biopharma plants may release pollen and seed to neighboring farms where real food is grown and contaminate other crops, wild growing plants and even the environment. This has been the case with Monsanto who have destroyed many neighboring crops with their genetically modified foods that released pollen on their neighbors and contaminated their crops.

The biopharma growers claim that they only use plants that self-pollinate, thereby reducing the risk of contaminating nonpharma plants by wind or insect pollination.

Canada is one of the front runners in this new industry. SemBioSys, a Canadian company has applied to the U.S.D.A. (United States Department of Agriculture) for permits to grow safflower-based human insulin. It is already field-testing safflower crops in the United States and Chile that produce carp growth hormone for aquaculture feed, to boost the weak immune system of farmed shrimp. The company claims that as long as the insulin or growth hormone is in the plant form it has no biological activity but we only have the word of the company that this is true. It would not be the first time a large corporation (Monsanto), or the government lied to the public about the dangers of their products.

During the years I spent in university I was always fascinated by biochemistry, which is the chemistry of all living organisms. My respect for this science tells me that human beings do not have the power to control living and propagating organisms in our environment. Maybe if these plants were kept in greenhouses I would feel a little more secure. Also why do we have to use food crops? It was a horrible experiment in which we decided to use corn to fuel our cars and all it did was raise the cost of nearly all food worldwide. Why not use a carnation flower, a castor bean or even sugar cane plants.

The claim about self-pollination may not be accurate because gene flow will continue between plants and cross-pollination is not the only way that pharma crops can escape confinement. Once harvested, seeds can move easily, accidentally or deliberately across and beyond borders. Biopharma crops could end up growing in other fields hundreds of miles away and the potential to destroy the environment could be huge.

Once the rogue seeds are replanted, could the plants thrive in their new home and possibly overtake or contaminate native varieties or wild relatives? Could the biopharma plants that grow the drug eventually increase in frequency and concentration until each plant can be a therapeutic dose that could cause serious health effects in anybody who consumed it unwittingly?

Since pharmaceutical companies have a very strong lobby with the United States government they are allowed to withhold data on their crops from the public as confidential business information. So far the U.S.D.A. has had two claims this year from rice farmers who have tried to purge contaminants from their crops.

Just this year the Agriculture Department approved a permit allowing a California biotech company, Ventria Bioscience to plant its pharmaceutical rice in open fields in Kansas. Ventria’s rice is engineered to produce two of the human proteins found in breast milk and other body fluids. Once harvested, the proteins will be used in treatments for diarrhea and infections, as well as nutritional supplements. Imagine if this rice escaped into our food supply and we were eating human gene-based pharmaceuticals in our bread.

This battle for farmland could be similar to the old days of the Wild West in which cattle farmers and grain farmers battled for land. The battle could be between those who need drugs and the people who need food. Which lobby will be the strongest and wind up with most of the farmland. My fear is that the winner will be the pharmaceutical industry.

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