Reuters
UPDATE - Medicine crops to stay in Midwest despite concerns
Thursday March 6, 5:07 pm ET
By Randy Fabi

(Adds details, reaction)

WASHINGTON, March 6 (Reuters) - The federal government said on Thursday it would not stop U.S. farmers in the Midwest and Plains states from planting new crops engineered to produce medicines despite pleas from environmental groups and the food industry worried about possible contamination.

U.S. food industry groups and environmental activists have expressed concern that without tough safeguards, the new biotech crops could accidentally contaminate corn, soybeans and other crops destined for human and livestock food.

In response, the U.S. Agriculture Department proposed new rules requiring farmers and biotech companies, such as Dow Chemical Co. (NYSE:DOW - News) and Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MON - News), to plant pharmaceutical and industrial corn crops at least one mile from other crops.

"This technology ... holds tremendous promise for the future of agriculture," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "So it's very important that we regulate in a way that allows this technology to proceed."

The USDA also promised to keep a closer eye on the experimental crops, after a Texas company last year was fined for allegedly mishandling its pharmaceutical corn and contaminating nearby crops. ProdiGene Inc., a privately owned biotech firm, agreed to pay about $3 million in fines and costs after USDA found traces of its experimental corn in some Nebraska soybeans.

Bobby Acord, administrator for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told reporters the changes were made to "make absolutely certain that there are no ProdiGenes in the future."

About 15 to 20 companies have spliced corn, soybeans, tobacco, rice, barley and sugar crops as a cheaper way to mass-produce medicines to treat a range of human ailments.

None of these pharmaceutical crops has yet been approved by U.S. regulators for commercial use. Companies aim to begin marketing them in about five years.

FOOD INDUSTRY WANTS "FAR MORE" SAFEGUARDS

The U.S. food industry and environmental groups said USDA's actions, while a good first step, fell far short of what was necessary to guarantee pharmaceutical crops do not seep into the food supply.

"Though these steps are in the right direction, far more is needed to ensure against any contamination of food and feed supplies," said Rhona Applebaum, vice president of the National Food Processors Association.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, whose members include major foodmakers such as General Mills Inc. (NYSE:GIS - News), Kellogg Co. (NYSE:K - News), and Del Monte (NYSE:DLM - News), urged for a temporary halt to all bio-pharm crop plantings until a better regulatory system was in place.

A coalition of 11 environmental and consumer groups said on Wednesday it would sue the USDA if it continued approving field tests.

"By allowing pharmaceuticals to be grown in food crops, it is just a matter of time before another mistake happens and contamination occurs again," said Richard Caplan, spokesman for the Public Interest Research Group.

The USDA said it will allow the continued planting of pharmaceutical and industrial crops in the Midwest, but under stricter conditions.

"The guidelines are demanding for those farmers who decide to pursue this value-added opportunity, but they are fair and based on sound science," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

ONE-MILE BUFFER ZONE

Under the proposed rules, bio-pharm corn crops would have to be planted at least one mile away from plants destined for human and livestock food. Current regulations call for half-mile separation.

Producers must also use separate equipment and storing facilities when planting pharmaceutical crops. And they cannot grow food or feed crops on the same land the following year.

The USDA said about 130 acres of land last year were authorized for these field tests. The 34 test plots, each typically about a half-acre in size, included farmland in Nebraska, Iowa, California, Kentucky, Virginia and Hawaii.

"We are very supportive of these guidelines," said Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (News - Websites).

USDA said it would significantly increase the number of inspections, potentially checking each field five times a year. However, environmental groups said they were skeptical that USDA has the resources and personnel to meet these goals.

The USDA announcement confirmed what industry sources told Reuters earlier in the week about the new rules.