Remember the early hubbub about pharmaceutical crops when industry rumors claimed a single acre could be worth up to $800,000? Heck, that's even better than $15 beans. As it turns out, neither will likely happen.
The next wave of biotech crops with output traits that consumers want — not just input traits that save farmers money — probably won't hit Corn Belt pay dirt for quite awhile.
Even if the next generation of biotech crops reaches the Midwest, the market will be much smaller than most would like to admit. In the next 10 years, it's optimistic to think that the PMP (plant-made pharmaceutical) crops will reach even 100,000 acres, according to industry analysts. Sound like a booming market to you?
The future of PMPs hit the harsh light of reality last fall when the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), an industry powerhouse that includes many biotech companies as members, established a new policy. It says that transgenic corn modified for pharmaceutical or industrial enzyme production wouldn't be planted in the Mid-west. By USDA definition, that's basically from eastern Nebraska to western Ohio, and southern Minnesota to central Missouri.
Several issues drove that decision. One is the threat of cross-pollination of biotech corn with non-biotech corn and the possibility that some grain could enter traditional food and feed channels. The industry group also wanted to take steps that would instill confidence with companies farther up the food chain as this new technology gets off the ground.
Protests over the policy were quick and vociferous, particularly in Iowa. The ag industry there sees new biotech crops as a potential billion-dollar boon for the state.
Those protests, at both the state and national level, caused BIO to “clarify” the policy early last December. While BIO hasn't abandoned its Midwestern policy, the clarification is meant to remove any appearances of geographical discrimination, says Lisa Dry, BIO's director of communication.
“Food safety still remains our No. 1 concern,” she says. “We're anticipating that USDA will come out with new regulations some time in December (2002) that may make this whole issue moot. The new restrictions will make it very difficult to grow these crops close to areas where commodity crops also are grown.”
It didn't help the biotech industry's cause when news broke that the Texas-based biotech company, ProdiGene, had violated permit procedures in fields in both Nebraska and Iowa. Both cases involved volunteer corn in soybean fields in 2002, where a biotech corn crop had been planted in '01.
In the Nebraska case, apparently 500 bu of soybeans were harvested and hauled to a local elevator before all the volunteer corn had been removed. Those 500 bu were dumped in with other soybeans and 500,000 bu ended up contaminated and quarantined.
The Iowa issue involved the possible contamination of 150 acres of corn planted around soybeans in a field where possibly volunteer transgenic corn was growing. The risk of cross pollination between the two corn crops resulted in the destruction of all 150 acres of corn.
“We don't even know if the volunteer corn was from the previous year's transgenic corn or not. Even the amount of crop residue contained in the Nebraska soybeans is an estimate,” says Jim Rogers, director of public affairs for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “But, it was definitely not in compliance with the permit conditions. The corn crop was monitored in 2001 and again in 2002 when inspectors specifically looked for volunteer corn. It's an excellent example of how the regulations work.”
In December, a consent decision and order regarding violations of the Plant Protection Act was signed by ProdiGene and USDA. While ProdiGene neither admitted nor denied any violations of the Plant Protection Act (PPA), the company will pay a civil penalty of $250,000. In addition, the company will reimburse USDA for all costs to acquire approximately 500,000 bu of soybeans in storage in Nebraska, destroy the beans and clean the facility and all equipment.
The incidents may have validated the BIO policy. But, actually, the consumer end of the food industry brought pressure on BIO to curb the growth of PMP and industrial enzyme crops in the nation's heartland.
“We talked to the top executives of associations such as the National Association of Millers, Grocery Manufacturer's Association, National Food Processors, the National Grain and Feed Association and others,” says Dry, of BIO.
“We did a lot of listening. Ultimately, we had to make a decision that wasn't based entirely on science. The policy is a step beyond science to safeguard future technology and appease the food industry so we could stay in business.”
Remember StarLink? That's the real issue here. The food industry doesn't care to endure another nightmare like StarLink and is trying to guarantee that it doesn't happen again.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) understands the reason for the policy, says Fred Yoder, president and Ohio farmer. “A lot of the BIO members are end users. Shame on us if we don't listen to them. I'm willing to take a breather until the industry fully endorses it,” he says.
“If we screw up, we could lose this technology forever,” Yoder adds. “If we don't learn anything from StarLink, we don't deserve the technology.”
The National Agricultural Bio-technology Council (NABC) is concerned that the policy will restrict university research, the development home for much of the crop technology that farmers use today.
“This policy could seriously slow or terminate university research,” says NABC President Ralph Hardy.
Beyond the BIO policy, however, there are other compelling reasons to believe that PMP crops won't have much impact on ag for some time to come.
There are both financial and social risk factors. And, all the risks are big. Even the largest farmers would wilt at the sight of the price tag it takes to develop these products. Second, why would any company want to be the first accused of producing a product that contaminated the food or feed channels? And why, after assuming the expense and risk, would a company feel obligated to share its sizable profits with a part of the industry with no investment in it?
The bigger potential for biotech crops lies in the industrial enzyme crops. A million or more acres are realistic once these products reach the market. Eventually, they could represent millions of acres, say industry analysts. But right now these products are harnessed with the same regulatory process that PMPs have. The biotech industry is still young, and likely some of these issues will be solved over time.
“Eventually, we will be able to show that the concerns are unfounded,” says Dry.
For the foreseeable future, it appears biotechnology remains a science, not a savior for rural America.