Iowa Public Television


Making Medicines From Crops

posted on October 1, 2004

California rice farmers are worried Japanese customers will boycott their grain if genetically engineered rice is allowed into the state. And in Hawaii, organic papaya farmers are outraged because traces of genetically engineered papaya are showing up in their harvest.

And so it goes in the modern world of agriculture, where "gene flow" between GE and natural crops is one of the issues on the leading edge of new farm science.

One of the more controversial aspects of genetic engineering involves the splicing of human genes into crops in order to grow pharmaceuticals, or ingredients for "medical foods."

This past summer, two brothers from Iowa managed a test plot for one such specialty crop that could symbolize a future of farming pharmaceuticals. Nancy Crowfoot explains.


Making Medicines From Crops

This is the 11th annual convention of the global Biotechnology Industry Organization.

BillHoran, "Pharmer": "We're producing medicine therapeutics."

It is the third year Iowa farmer Bill Horan and his brother have attended. They are here in San Francisco to make business contacts to grow what they hope is a "hot" future for agriculture & pharmaceuticals.

Bill Horan, "Pharmer": "We think we got a couple of very good leads. One we're particularly excited about is a German biotech company."

Horan is excited about a "new" kind of crop... one he is certain will bring him higher profits than he receives from his commodity soybeans and corn.

But he isn't waiting for the medical market to mature. For the past four years he has grown test plots of potential pharmaceutical crops for various biotech companies. He has planted biotech corn and tobacco.

And this summer, he and his brother planted barley developed by a Sacramento biotech company. Stacey Roberts, the Agronomist and Director of Field Productions for the company, says the human protein in this barley would be of great benefit worldwide, in so-called "medical foods" such as oral rehydration solutions for severe diarrhea in children.

Stacey Roberts, Ventria Bioscience, Sacramento, California: "The barley that we have now contains a therapeutic protein known as lactofferin and we are growing, in particular, the human form of lactoferrin. Its very ubiquitous in the human body. It is present in our tears, its present in our saliva, its present in a mother's milk."

Roberts says if the protein lactoferrin can be successfully grown and processed from grain & it will be more widely available and more cost effective to produce than other production systems.

Bill Horan, "Pharmer": "I'm not wild about this seed bed."

But implementing such idealism in the field isn't easy... or free of stress.

Stacey Roberts, Ventria Bioscience, Sacramento, California: "So we feel confident we're going to plant?"

Everyone is a bit nervous. From one-and-a-half years of research in the lab to the first planting, the company values this 10-foot by 10-foot plot of transgenic barley at $36,000.

On this windy, wet and overcast day, there was more to worry about than the weather.

Stacey Roberts, Ventria Bioscience, Sacramento, California: "We were a little bit nervous about planting and coming out here. We were most concerned that we meet all the compliance requirements, that we're able to get the quarter mile to any other barley and the 50 foot fallow area."

The USDA has a long list of regulations governing pharmaceutical crops. That is why, after two years of discussions and just hours before the first seed was planted on this day, the two parties hashed over details one more time... just to be sure each understood their responsibilities.

Meeting discussion: Stacey Roberts: "The first permit is for planting. The second permit is for shipping."

Ventria's Stacey Roberts filed all the documents to obtain the permits for planting and shipping of the seeds.

The Horans picked where to plant and submitted the GPS coordinates to the government. As with their other pharm crops (that's pharm with a p-h)& they purchased separate dedicated equipment to plant, harvest, transport and store the crop ...although due to the small plot size and wet weather, they ended up planting by hand.

Bill Horan, "Pharmer": "Well, when you've got a hoe and you're planting high tech seed, its back to the future."

They can poke fun at the circumstances, but all involved know it is serious business. So serious, a USDA inspector must be present to oversee the planting.

He also will visit the field at least four or five more times during the growing season, during harvest and after harvest. If any infractions of the regulations are discovered -- fines to the farmers and/or the company start at $10,000 per violation.

The potential fines are just one of the "fear factors" biopharm participants face. Anything biotech is not without its critics. For example, Ventria made news headlines in May as rice growers and environmental groups protested the company's plans to raise genetically engineered rice containing a protein for medical foods.

However, in Iowa, the experience has been much less dramatic ... even as the biotech crop emerges three weeks after planting.

Bill Horan, "Pharmer": "Joe and I have never had any concern about activist. We just don't seem to have that activity in this state. The only question we get from our neighbors, and it's the same every time, is when do we get to do it?".

The "when" could be years away. An investment analyst who specializes in biotechnology says biopharming is still young and in some cases still unproven. John McCamant, Editor of the "Medical Technology Stock Letter" in Berkley, says it could be 10 years before a solid large-scale, commercial market emerges for agriculture.

John McCamant, Medical Technology Stock Letter, Berkley, California: "Biotechnology is somewhere where computers were maybe in the 60s or early 70s, where there weren't a lot of public companies. We were just getting our arms around the technology and we believe life sciences itself will change the way our lives are lived and agriculture will certainly be one of those down the road, Nancy."

For the Horans and Ventria Bioscience, "down the road" is hopefully just a few years away.

Stacey Roberts, Ventria Bioscience: "We are currently working with the FDA to ensure that the barley and the rice that we use to grow this crop and the protein that is expressed in it is suitable for what we're talking about and that process could take up to a year."

If approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Roberts says her company could be contracting for 10,000 to 20,000 acres of crops by 2007 or 2008.

That's just a short wait for two Iowa farmers hoping to expand their ten-foot by ten-foot barley pharmaceutical crop.

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture biotechnology crops drugs farmers medicine news