Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | January 13, 2008

Be wary of biotech lettuce experiments

The Salinas Californian recently reported on a talk by Professor Henry Daniell, who was here to promote cultivation of drug-producing lettuce.

The biotechnology industry has long hoped to use plants, including common food crops, to produce high-profit new drugs. It is worth noting that Daniell is not only an academic; he is also the founder of Chlorogen, Inc., a company that hopes to profit from these so-called “pharm” crops.

Salinas farmers should be leery of lettuce pharming. The California lettuce industry is still reeling from consumer fears of E. coli contamination. Imagine the uproar from healthy salad eaters when they learn that California lettuce growers are planting untested, experimental drugs near the lettuce that is destined for our supermarkets.

Scientists say there is no way to keep untested drugs produced in food crops out of the food supply. Even the editors of the pro-biotechnology science journal Nature Biotechnology warned:

“Don’t use food plants for producing drugs,” because of the health risks.

Consumers, including our children, who may unknowingly eat pharmed lettuce could get an uncontrolled dose of an untested, biologically active drug – with unknown consequences.

As reported in The Californian, Daniell claims that farmers growing untested drugs in lettuce will face no new regulations. This sounds frighteningly similar to the promises made by the world’s leading pharm crop company, ProdiGene, to Midwestern farmers.

Although the company promised farmers would face “no new growing practices” if they chose to plant ProdiGene’s untested drugs in their corn, this lax attitude cost some farmers more than they bargained for. Half-a-million bushels of Nebraska soybeans were ordered to be destroyed when the unapproved ProdiGene drug-corn contaminated the soy crop.

Daniell claims that contamination would not be a concern because his drug-producing lettuce can’t cross with natural lettuce varieties.

But, ProdiGene’s corn did not cross-pollinate with soybeans: It contaminated soybeans with volunteer drug-corn from the previous season’s seed grown on the same land. The drug corn went undetected in the soybean field that was harvested the following season.

Cross-pollination is one of many potential routes of contamination. Other unapproved biotech crops have contaminated safe, natural varieties during every stage of production. Contamination occurs through seed mix-ups, wind or animal seed dispersal, not thoroughly cleaned farm equipment and storage bins, improperly labeled seeds, and numerous other unpredictable ways, often from human error.

Danielle’s system for avoiding cross-pollination relies on the hope that genes inserted into a plant’s chloroplast cells will not be a contamination problem, since they are a part of the plant’s DNA that does not mix in pollination. But, a 2003 study found that genes can move between the chloroplast and nuclei of plants, and they did so more often than researchers expected. This means that Danielle’s untested drug plants could cross-pollinate with lettuce destined for our dinner tables.

Given all the potential human errors that could lead to contamination, and the biological reality that it is impossible to fully contain these untested drug plants, it is clear that lettuce pharming is a dangerous idea for Salinas.

If growers in the Salinas Valley are looking for new markets, they should look to safer, healthier, and organic markets, not an untested, risky pharm crop that will do more harm to the industry than good.



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