Frankenpharm a step closer for Phillips County

Groups say the USDA should not “bulldoze” Colorado to support potentially unsafe farming practices – such as biopharming.
Prevention of biopharming in Phillips County is likely just a fading glimmer of hope. The US Department of Agriculture approved Meristem Therapeutics’ application for a permit to plant a new type of genetically modified corn in Colorado, and has forwarded the application to the Colorado Department of Agriculture for review.

The state has until June 2 to decide if it will either concur with the application, not concur or concur with further restrictions. In a press conference Wednesday, Jennifer Kemp, the director of government relations for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said “most indications are that the CDOA will approve” the permit.

So far, more professional organizations in the state publicly oppose biopharming than endorse it. In addition to the RMFU, the American Corn Growers Association, the Colorado Organic Producers Association, the Farmers Legal Action Group and the Sierra Club have joined the effort to stop such planting.
However, according to CDOA Director of Policy and Communications Jim Miller, even if the state does declare a nonconcurrance to the USDA, “it doesn’t imply the state has the ability to block the permit.”

“The USDA said they will give the state’s feedback ‘serious consideration,’ but they will not necessarily comply with any recomendations,” Miller said.
Groups opposed to an open-door policy on biopharming have also called on Gov. Bill Owens to impose a moratorium on open-air planting of such crops citing inadequate federal and state containment and safety regulations as their main concerns.

Kemp said she is unsure of the weight such a measure could actually carry with the federal government.

“The main thing we’re trying to do is make a statement to the USDA and the industry that we’re not going to allow bulldozing of the state to support a potentially unsafe practice,” she said. “There are too many unanswered questions. Our state’s agriculture is important to us and before we welcome (this technology) with open arms, we need answers.”

The questions Kemp said have yet to be answered by Meristem involve the issues of containment and safety.

“How will they clean the equipment? They said the equipment would have to be thoroughly cleaned before being used at other locations; what does that mean, exactly? How will they dispose of the waste?” she asked. “Is it safe for workers to inhale the particles released while processing the corn? What if they accidentally ingest it?”

Dave Dechant, a member of the American Corn Growers Association who farms alfalfa, corn and wheat in Fort Lupton, said he is concerned about the previous inabilities of companies like ProdiGene and Aventis CropScience (the maker of StarLink corn) to guarantee against genetic drift.

The European Union has a moratorium against importing all transgenic produce and Japan and Mexico have implemented moratoriums on corn and other foods. In November 2002, five of six southern African countries who asked for relief for 14 million starving people refused to accept modified corn from the U.S. unless it was first milled to prevent contamination and illness. In most cases, the U.S. refused to foot the bill.

“What will happen to our exports? One kernel can have a major impact on exportation,” Dechant said. “I’m worried about our domestic customers too. People say the customer is always right, and until our customers say they want this technology, (Meristem) should refrain from growing outdoors.”
On its Web site, www.meristem-therapeutics.com, Meristem asserts its seed provider, French company Limagrain, uses a system of genetic male sterility which guarantees against any uncontrolled pollen dispersal.

Doug Wiley, acting president of Colorado Organic Growers and Boone, Colo., farmer, said while pollen relocation is the foremost method of gene transfer, he was equally concerned with methods of pollination through animals and soil.
It seems possible Meristem and its supporters – the Colorado Corn Growers Association and the National Corn Growers Association – could reach a compromise with the opposing groups.

Kemp said she is worried about the lack of dialogue between Meristem and the public. However, she said if the company would prove their concerns were unfounded, the opposition would probably back down.

“We’re not opposed to the technology,” she said. “We just don’t know enough yet.”

(c) 2003 Journal-Advocate. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.

Published in “Local News”