Iowa Public Television


Pharming Goes Underground

posted on May 25, 2007

Iowa State University filed suit against Monsanto this week, alleging the chemical producer has infringed on a patent with the company's release of low-linolenic soybeans.

Iowa State contends its scientists have worked on the, so called, "low-lin" beans since1968, and the university owns at least eight patents covering their breeding and production. Monsanto denies that it ever used patented soybean technology owned by Iowa State.

Dispute over ownership of intellectual property, is but one of the issues confronting the biotech industry.

Cross-pollination of other crops also is a concern that, at times, has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over genetically modified organisms, or G-M-Os.

But an innovative Midwestern farm may offer a solution to cross-pollination concerns. By growing its pharmaceutical crops below ground, Controlled Pharming Ventures believes it's found gold in an Indiana mine. Jeannie Campbell explains.

Pharming Goes Underground

Doug Ausenbaugh is a pharmer… That's pharmer spelled with a ph… And his field is located in what was once a limestone mine in Morengo, Indiana.

Doug Ausenbaugh, Controlled Pharming Ventures: "About two-and-a-half years ago a tornado came and essentially destroyed half of the town of Marengo here. This facility was untouched. We offer a complete, contained production system so nothing gets out and nothing gets in."

160 feet below ground, in a climate controlled environment Ausenbaugh hopes to raise genetically modified crops that will be used to produce pharmaceuticals. He believes his underground pharm will allow him to grow the crops of tomorrow, today

Doug Ausenbaugh, Controlled Pharming Ventures: "Currently biotechnology drugs are produced primarily using mammalian cells or some sort of fermentation method. By using whole plants you're able to eliminate a lot of the risks that are associated with other types of biotechnology, drug production at a significant cost advantage."

Controlled Pharming Ventures, the company Ausenbaugh founded, currently consists of two grow rooms 600 square feet in size, located in a 100 acre mine. Plants are grown in containers that hold a specially designed artificial soil and are fed nutrients through an irrigation system. Both light and temperature are controlled to optimize growth, and cameras allow researchers to keep an eye on crops via the internet.

Doug Ausenbaugh, Controlled Pharming Ventures: "Our ability to control all the different environmental parameters, is very important when it comes to things such as pharmaceutical production because you've got to be able to demonstrate that you're producing your product in a consistent manner and the quality is an integral part of your production process.."

Experts believe drugs can be produced from genetically modified organisms, or GMO's, at a fraction of the cost it takes to develop them conventionally in the lab. But critics claim the risk of contaminating crops grown for food outweighs their benefits.

Brent Blackwelder, President of Friends of the Earth: "I think genetically modified organisms are a real disaster for the country despite all the hoopla about the benefits…"

Brent Blackwelder is president of Friends of the Earth, and is the most senior environmental lobbyist in Washington.

Brent Blackwelder, President of Friends of the Earth: "Do you want to wake up and be consuming with your corn flakes somebody's insulin or prescription blood thinners? I think this is really a serious issue."

In addition to concerns over cross-pollination, GMO critics also claim there could be problems keeping genetically engineered crops separate from their conventional cousins.

Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio: "What were here about today is the contamination of the food supply with a genetically engineered corn used in animal feed but not approved for human consumption."

In 2000, StarLink, a genetically engineered corn was found in taco shells.

Dennis Kucinich, D – Ohio: "In this case, the GE food industry and the FDA have failed the American Public and are loosing the public trust."

StarLink was planted on less than 1-half of one percent of total U.S. corn acres, and no threat to public health was ever confirmed. Nevertheless, the incident cost the French drug company Aventis, developer of StarLink, dearly.

Neil Harl, Iowa State University: "Of course the original amount of StarLink ballooned because of contamination. So it reached a lot more bushels than were produced on the 340,000 acres that had actually been planted in StarLink."

Neil Harl, a professor of agriculture and economics at Iowa State University, estimated Aventis paid over 500 million dollars to farmers, food processors and grain handlers.

Neil Harl, Iowa State University: "Early in the game the expected payoff was so large that they were almost tossing caution to the winds. But the StarLink episode was the big factor and they realized that the potential loss was going to be very great if there was contamination, particularly if it involved a biopharmaceutical."

In a fact sheet released in June of 2006, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that state governments were leading the federal government in addressing concerns regarding genetically modified crops. However, it also found that in most cases state legislation was attempting to preempt local control that would prohibit genetically modified crops.

Despite concerns over GMO's, Doug Ausenbaugh is optimistic that the crops can be produced and processed in a manner that ensures safety.

With the help of a 2 million dollar grant from Indiana's 21st Century Fund, Ausenbaugh began Controlled Pharming Ventures in 2003. He believes that pharming in an abandoned limestone mine addresses the problems associated with growing genetically engineered crops above ground.

Doug Ausenbaugh, Controlled Pharming Ventures: "Obviously we have a running head start from a containment standpoint. We have a natural barrier between us and the outside world. It's a very constant environment that gives us a running head start from a control perspective. We obviously can't compete against growing food outdoors. However, we've shown that we can compete from an economic perspective against other types of plant made pharmaceuticals."


Tags: agriculture biotechnology crops drugs genetic engineering Indiana medicine news nuts