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Food Supply Vulnerable to Pharmaceutical Crop Contamination

New report warns that unless substantial changes are made in the ways and places such crops are grown and managed the food supply is at risk.

Farmers have joined the pharmaceutical industry to produce drugs, vaccines and industrial chemicals from corn soybeans and other genetically engineered food crops. But a new report by six agricultural experts warns that you may get a heavy dose of medicine from eating cereal unless substantial changes are made in the ways and places suck pharmaceutical crops are grown and managed.

The report, A Growing Concern: Protecting the Food Supply in an Era of Pharmaceutical and Industrial Crops, was written by scientists at Iowa Sate University, University of Central Florida, University of California at Davis, University of Illinois, and University of Minnesota, and an agricultural management expert based in Hudson, Iowa. The panel was brought together to answer the question: Is it possible to produce pharmaceuticals in familiar food crops like corn or soybean (the two plants most often used for pharmaceutical production) without contaminating human food or animal feed?

The panel—acting independently of UCS—analyzed the current system for growing food- and feed-grade corn and soybeans and identified many points where drugs and plastics could pass to the food supply if pharmaceutical crops were grown under the same system. After evaluating various approaches to blocking contamination at those points, the panel concluded that the current corn and soybean production system cannot be used for pharmaceutical corn and soybean in the United States while ensuring virtually no contamination of the food and feed system.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says based on the experts' findings, the USDA should band the field production of corn, soybeans, and other food crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. The six experts said companies should consider engineering nonfood crops like tobacco for pharmaceutical uses, rather than corn.

"It is sobering that drugs and industrial chemicals could have so many routes to the food supply," says Dr. David Andow, editor of the technical report and a professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. "Pollen can be carried to fields with food crops by the wind or insects, seeds lodged in the crevices of harvesting equipment could come loose while harvesting food, and plants can come up as volunteers in the middle of a food crop. To protect the food supply, each potential route has to be blocked."

The expert panel said it is theoretically possible for the government to create a new system that would allow corn or soybean to be safely used as pharmaceutical crops. Establishing that system, however, especially if it permits pharmaceutical crop production to continue within traditional food-crop regions, would require new management systems, new oversight, and new uses of some equipment and technologies—all built from the ground up. The expert panel strongly encouraged development of this new system.

UCS says the better way to reap the benefits of pharmaceutical crops is to stop the use of food crops now and begin to explore other production methods, like non-food crops or plant cell cultures.

A Growing Concern can be found on the web at

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