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Advisory / BIOTECHNOLOGY

Food, Biotech Industries Feud Over Plans for Bio-Pharming
Scott Kilman

Chicago -- A fight is breaking out between the U.S. food and biotechnology industries over plans to genetically modify food crops to make drugs and chemicals.

Bio-pharming is widely seen as the next wave for the crop-biotechnology sector, which so far has focused on making crops easier to grow. Industry officials hope this nascent field, which exploits the ability of plants to make medically important proteins at far less expense than fermentation factories, will grow into a multibillion-dollar business by the end of the decade.

But politically powerful trade groups for the $500 billion food sector are preparing to lobby federal regulators for new rules that would make life far more difficult for bio-pharming firms. The food industry, which has been generally supportive of crop biotechnology thus far, might try to enlist consumers in its drive to take food crops out of the hands of bio-pharming businesses.

'Go to the Public'

"If need be, we could even go to the public," said Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C. Most food executives have long supported the push by biotech companies into agriculture, anticipating the creation of crops that would taste better, stay fresh longer and no longer trigger allergic reactions in consumers.

But they don't want their favorite crops genetically modified for anybody else. Many food executives are afraid that vaccines, enzymes, antibodies and hormones might accidentally end up in their products, which would trigger expensive recalls. They are worried that handling mishaps might occur and that pollen from plants designed for pharmaceutical purposes might drift far enough on the wind to impregnate related crops intended for food.

'Corn Is Protected'

"We want to ensure that our corn is protected. We are concerned," said Mark Dollins, a spokesman for PepsiCo Inc. unit Quaker Oats, which has a breakfast-cereal factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a state that is spending millions of dollars to attract bio-pharming firms interested in working on corn plants, its biggest crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has been reviewing the rules, requires bio-pharming inventors to keep their experimental crops a certain distance from fields of related plants and to time the reproductive cycle of their fields so that they are out of synch with those of neighbors' fields. But there is no limit on the geography of bio-pharming inventions or the plants that can be used.

Trade groups such as Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association are pressing the biotechnology industry to make pharmaceuticals only from nonfood crops such as tobacco. But food crops such as corn, canola, potatoes, and tomatoes are the plants of choice for many bio-pharming researchers.

On The Pharm. The biggest North American biotech trade group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, tried to strike a compromise late last month. Its bio-pharming members, which number about a dozen in the U.S. and Canada, pledged to avoid planting corn in the major corn-producing states of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana and in portions of Nebraska and five other states.

Doesn't Cover All Food Crops.

But the drug-free zone doesn't go far enough for many in the food sector. It doesn't cover all food crops, it is little more than a gentleman's agreement, and some companies interested in bio-pharming aren't members of the trade group. Iowa officials, for example, are pressing ahead with efforts to foster a bio-pharming industry built around corn, its biggest crop.

"We'll make sure Iowa is still the place to be" for biotechnology firms, Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack said. Midwest economists see bio-pharming as a rare chance for a niche of farmers to reap much more money from growing corn. "The stakes are big for a place like rural Iowa," said Mark Drabenstott, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo., adding: "There aren't a lot of economic opportunities that come along like this for them."

Iowa has been among the most aggressive states at trying to build a bio-pharming industry. The state has poured millions into research at its public universities, created tax incentives to lure inventors, and is proceeding with plans to build a facility for extracting pharmaceutical proteins from crops.

Recruit Meristem. One Iowa recruit is Meristem Therapeutics, a French biotechnology concern, which this year grew a one-acre test plot of corn genetically modified to make gastric lipase enzyme, which is used to treat digestive problems caused by cystic fibrosis.

Bill Horan, the Rockwell City, Iowa, farmer who grew the experimental corn, wouldn't comment on whether the project will continue in that state next year. Meristem is a member of Biotechnology Industry Organization, the industry trade group that arranged the truce. A spokesman for the organization said it expects Meristem to go along with the agreement, but officials of Meristem couldn't be reached for comment on their plans.

The accord will force ProdiGene Inc., a closely held BIO member based in College Station, Texas, to shift hundreds of acres of its genetically modified corn from one county in Nebraska, said Anthony Laos, its chief executive officer. The corn is engineered to make trypsin, a protein that is produced by the pancreas. The drug sector uses the protein to make insulin, among other things.

The trade-group moratorium is open-ended in terms of how long it lasts. But Mr. Laos said he intends to honor it for one year and then reconsider.

He also is adamant about continuing to use the corn plant. Corn, he says, is one of the easiest plants to genetically modify, and it excels at making novel proteins in its seeds, a handy storage container. "We have capitulated some, but I would fight going any further," the CEO said.

 Wall Street Journal 

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