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Synthesis/Regeneration 28   (Spring 2002)

Crop Producing Human Protein
Found Growing in Open Field Test

by Kimberly Wilson, Genetic Engineering Campaign, Greenpeace

Holding a large banner reading, “This Rice is a Drug, Stop Genetically Engineered Food,” Greenpeace activists for the first time exposed the location of a crop that is genetically engineered to produce human proteins for drug production. The crop in question, a genetically engineered (GE) rice variety in Sutter County, California, is just one of many new “pharmaceutical” crops growing in the US. While other GE crops are intended for human food, this pharmaceutical rice produces the human proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme meant for use in drugs. Wearing biohazard suits and marking the field with giant syringes, the protesters warned that open-air field trials of genetically engineered (GE) pharmaceutical crops pose unacceptable risks to the food supply and the environment.

A pharmaceutical crop that cross-pollinates or otherwise pollutes the food supply would expose Americans to unknown drugs in their food.

Greenpeace called on the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to remove the pharmaceutical rice and revoke all permits for field testing of drug-producing crops. Both the California Rice Commission and the Farmers’ Rice Cooperative have recently adopted policies to segregate GE and non-GE rice. Industry insiders doubt that purity can be assured given the many potential points for contamination along the path from airplane seeding of fields to the final milling process. A pharmaceutical crop that cross-pollinates or otherwise pollutes the food supply would expose Americans to unknown drugs in their food.

Applied Phytologics (AP), the biotech corporation responsible for the field trial, is developing gene-altered rice to produce a variety of different proteins for drug production. Lactoferrin and lysozyme, both human proteins, are two known compounds growing in the rice. However, according to permit application documents, AP is testing up to a dozen other GE pharm rice varieties in the same location. In Hawaii, the company has recently conducted field tests of gene-altered wheat and barley producing other human proteins.

While the industry is already conducting open-air trials of pharmaceutical rice, wheat, corn and barley, few regulations to protect public health and the environment are in place. Additionally, no long-term studies have been done to assess the potential environmental damage these plants could cause.

The USDA, which claims authority over field trials of GE crops, has virtually no requirements specific to pharmaceutical crops. State agencies like the CDFA also have failed to establish any regulations governing these risky plants.

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